More on movie deals

Dear Miss Snark,

How in God's name does the whole book-proposal-to-movie-rights train get going? I've heard of sub agents in LA, and publishers putting manuscripts in the hands of movie types, well before books are ever published. Talk to me like I"m four years old. Suppose yesterday you accepted my engaging non-fiction proposal about an autistic scientist who spies on the Soviets during the cold war while solving an ancient Biblical code. How do I get my money?

What part of "pay no attention to this" in my last post about movie rights was unclear?
You really do not want to dwell on this.

But, if you insist, here goes:

Yes movies get optioned before books are sold.
Those evil gnomes in Hollywood are always scouting for new projects and they will make nice with the person who opens the mail, runs the xerox machine, answers the phone, or all three at every publisher they can.

Said openerrunneranswerer gets money, giftage, all sorts of swag for passing projects along. This is not considered criminal behavior, all appearaances to the contrary.

The evil gnomes have job titles like film scout, development assistant and the like. They are paid to find things, particularly things that no one else has yet but everyone wants. They don't want to be the only one with something no one else wants of course, that would be too risky.

Once they read this (or skim), they call the book agent. Who send them to a her film agent. Who gets the evil gnome's company to fork over OPTION MONEY. This gives them the exclusive rights for a possible film deal for a certain amount of time. When the time is up, they can renew (yay) or not (boo). They can also give you even more money when the project goes into development, goes into casting, goes into principal photography, gets released.

Once something is optioned, the evil gnome's company generally loses all interest unless the book is a huge hit, or some bankable person gets interested. Gangs of New York was a throwaway property till Martin Scorcese got interested. In Her Shoes was never a throwaway cause the book did so well, but the project needed bankable Cameron Diaz on board to get made.

But, honest to god, this is not a place for you to focus energy. The reason is because you have ZERO control over this. NONE. It's not a rational industry either. Things get optioned but not made for reasons that absolutely defy logic and reason. It's like high school cliques crossed with offshore bankers: Who's in, who's out, what's cool, what's not, and the unbearable agony of not wanting to make a mistake, all overlaid with lots of money ...that's the movie industry.


The Gambino Crime Family said...

So then, if you had a copy of the Hollywood Creative Directory or something like that, it would be incredibly stupid to start querying those low-level execs yourself? I was thinking I could do it at the same time I was querying for the novel itself. You know - twice the rejection for only a little more effort. Or should I really start searching around for a clue right about now?...

Maxwell said...

I caught James Ellroy on a book tour around the time L.A. Confidential was hitting the theaters. He said, in Miller Analogy fashion:

getting a book optioned for a film is to seeing the movie made as a first kiss is to a 60th wedding anniversary.

He claimed he did a bunch of self-promotion and schmoozed a lot to make it happen. He offered no details. This is one of those cases where it's entirely possible that there was no actual cause and effect relationship between his self-promotion and the movie getting made. Maybe he knew people.

One thing is for sure. Hollywood loves itself most of all. Movies like 'Rumor Has It' truly show Hollywood in its natural state - fawning all over itself. If you really want to write the movies, it probably wouldn't hurt to write a book that flatters Hollywood and the Hollywood lifestyle, like L.A. Confidential did. They even like it when you say bad things about them, as long as they are the subject of the conversation.

Nobody seems to be interested in making a movie out of The Big Nowhere or American Tabloid, which are widely accepted as better Ellroy books than L.A. Confidential. But again, he hits gold with The Black Dahlia, which again has a strong Hollywood angle. True, it was his breakthrough book, but he just got better as he wrote more.

But if you already have enough Hollywood insider insight to put the stuff they love in your story, writing a book probably isn't even in your top five list of ways to get into the biz.

Jim C. Hines said...

Months ago, I found out that DreamWorks had been discussing my novel, giving serious thought to making a movie out of it.

I learned this only after they had decided not to take it, because it was too similar to another project.

I had no input, and knew nothing until a friend at the publisher dropped me a note that could best be termed "bittersweet".

Having vented to a few bigger names after this, I learned it's fairly common, both in the "Hey, that came out of nowhere" and the "Oops, better luck next time" factors.

I did option off film rights to a zombie short story I wrote. Again, I had no input or awareness of what was happening until the editor e-mailed to say, "Hey, this company wants an option on these stories, and yours is one of 'em."

As an author, I daydream a bit about what a DreamWorks version of GoblinQuest would have been like, but there's really nothing I can do to make it happen. At least, not without leaving my wife, moving to Hollywood, and sleeping with someone important...

bonniers said...

I know a guy who had a short story optioned 25 years ago. It's been under one option or another ever since then, usually for a fairly nice sum of money. Once it made it as far as development, but the producer didn't like the script, apparently, and the project died.

He says it put his younger daughter through college, but only because she went to a state school.

Anonymous said...

OP again. Suppose I despise the literary life and am looking to trade in my tweed jackets for Tommy Bahama gear and make the jump to movieland. Do agents ever negotiate anything besides option money--such as author involvement in the screenplay? I'm sure the temptation is to take the money and run, but what if my autistic scientist/Biblical code solver story strikes the fancy of some idiot of the week with production money to burn? And the project seems doomed to cheesy movie of the week status, or worse? Would it piss off an agent to decline until something better comes along?

Mags said...

It's like high school cliques crossed with offshore bankers: Who's in, who's out, what's cool, what's not, and the unbearable agony of not wanting to make a mistake, all overlaid with lots of money ...that's the movie industry.

Makes publishing sound downright warm and fuzzy, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

There's a lot more to this than Snarky lets on, and you *can* have more control. Go to a site such as Done Deal http://scriptsales.com/boards/ and start digging.

Mark said...

Yeah, that's where I started, acting, and gave up. Getting a book deal looks easy compared to selling spec screenplays.

Mark said...

You won't find any sort of control plan at done deal. Just a bunch of wannbe screewriters and a few produced writers giving advice.

Anonymous said...

Look hard at Doen Deal. The info is there. The fact that Mark failed doesn't mean you will.

Brady Westwater said...

Agreed, the odds are a million to one that a book gets made into a movie. But option money can be very lucrative.

I once optioned a pitch - not a novel, but just a fleshed out idea - three times as a TV pilot and then a fourth time as a film - which finally got made.

But unless you are in LA there is not much you can do and it is better to leave it to the pros. The one thing I have problems with, though, is the DREAMWORKS near-deal that was mentioned.

If I were that agent, I would have conveyed the interest to my client and let the writer know the nature of the problem and see if the writer could have taken what they liked about the project and made enough changes to differentiate it from the other project.

Anonymous said...

Mademoiselle Snark,

Speaking of Hollywood scouts and other altruistic vultures, can you explain to me how some agents operate so damned quickly when it comes to turning late-breaking news stories into book deals?

During the great deluge of Hurricane Katrina, I could see how a high-profile figure like Anderson Cooper would seize his day in the spotlight to secure a million dollar book deal, but what about situations like the West Virgina mining tragedy? How soon do agents wait before contacting the wife of the lone survivor about writing a book on the experience? Or better yet, the wives of the men who died? What's the protocol, or is there any?

Do the parents of kidnapped CSM journalist Jill Carroll already have a book deal in place before knowing the final outcome of her immediate situation?

Just yesterday I read about Ariel Sharon's memoir being sold. The man's in a &^*%ing coma!

I find it astonishing when I read about news-worthy book deals that happen before the story has begun to peak. I really would enjoy learning more about your perspective on the matter.


Anonymous said...

A great example of the capriciousness of the movie business is the non-making of the film version of A Confederacy of Dunces.

It's scary, boys and girls!

Caught between the artistic whims of filmmakers and the financial whims of financiers--not to mention John Belushi's (IIRC) death--, that book has been under various options for more than twenty years.