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.