And the Oscar for Best Screenplay Adapted from Another..unfinished novel goes to...

Dear Miss Snark

I've had a half-finished novel in my desk for years. Last year, a professional screenwriter friend thought the story would make a good movie script, so we collaborated on a screenplay. (He mostly wrote it, based on my material.) The process of writing the screenplay made me want to go back to the novel and finish it. The hitch is that a major director is interested in the screenplay and may want to option it. What do I need to do to protect my rights to my original material? Can I insist that the screenplay is "based on a novel" when it's not only an unpublished novel but an unfinished one?

Thanks for your help. I heart your blog and Killer Yap. (Killer Yapp hearts you back and wants to know if there's a poodle in your movie. If so, his people will call your people)

Miss Snark is singularly unqualified to answer this question.
She steers clear of those Hollywood types; her interaction is limited to calling the Gersh Agency and saying "go! go! go!" which she does on Tuesdays at 6pm.

Someone reading this will know more about how to answer your question so watch the comment column.


Bill Peschel said...

A couple of uninformed comments:

1. I hope that there's some agreement betweent the novelist and screenwriter about the screenplay and who gets how much of the option money.

2. The contract with the director is the place where material may be put in to protect the novelist's right to publish his book.

3. I would assume that the WGA may have some rules about crediting this sort of thing, but I know absolutely nothing about that. There are screenwriters who have blogs out there (Kung Fu Monkey and Lee Goldberg comes to mind) who may know more about this.

Harry Connolly said...

If the company buying the script is a WGA signatory, it's a standard part of the agreement that writing a novelisation is a separated right (the writer doesn't sell that right when they sell all the other rights). You could still retain the right to the novel. Maybe.

Still, from everything I've been told (and this question gets asked often on screenwriting sites), you're unlikely to sell a script as an adaptation when the source material is unpublished, self-published or vanity-published. It's just not gonna happen. They'll pay a lot of money for the script, and they'll want as many rights as they can get.

I think the letter writer should shake it off and let it go. If the script really does sell (big if), have a fancy dinner with the money and be glad.

Also, Miss Snark, you should start sending screenplay questions to other sites. www.wordplayer.com is a good one. The guys running it were writers on Aladdin, Shrek, and Pirates of the Caribbean (among others). John August also answers questions on his blog.

Anonymous said...

Bill is pointing you in the right direction--toward WGA (West, of course). WGA offers a creative rights booklet, in plain English, here:


However, your situation shows why God gave us lawyers. If you google "California entertainment lawyers" or "California IP lawyers," you'll discover that there are hundreds to choose from--and that's just in L.A.

Your interests are not the same as your writing partner's. He may feel quite comfortable about the contract for the option, but you've got your own issues that need to be addressed before you sign anything.

IIRC, Tony Hillerman said in his autobiography that he had made a mistake in signing a contract for the TV rights to his character, Joe Leaphorn. These things do matter.

Would you be satisfied with a credit like this?--

Screenplay by Original Writer & Screenwriter Guy

Story by Original Writer

Sam said...

I'm tempted not to post this because it seems nitwits are almost asking for the trouble that comes to them - but who knows? Maybe this film will be a block- buster and the author will remember me in his will.

Your story does not have to be published. You can copyright it by sending an electronic copy to the screenwriter's guild of America (google it) and by paying about 25$ (you can do all this online with your credit card). Your story is protected by the guild in your name.
May I suggest a signed contract between you and the screen writer (also available at this site) and that you finish your novel before you copyright it. Just tag on an ending - in this case it doesn't have to be Pulitzer prize winning writing - you're protecting an idea.

Brady Westwater said...

If you do not already have an agent - get one now. And if you do have the same agent as does the screenwriter - then get an indepdendent entertainment lawyer to look over anything before you sign it.

Anonymous said...

And that's why God created the "Story By:" credit.

As far as the term "Story" is defined west of the Rockies, it can be defined as "A one sentence idea pitch that a truck stop drifter mentioned whilst we sipped our coffee."

Of course this is entirely subject to the integrity of your screenwriter buddy, and is not a very legally defensable position.

But, as an unpublished author, a "Story By" credit on a movie with a recognizable title could open more doors to you than a protracted legal battle for your share of a couple thousand dollars.

Consider mentioning to your screenwriter buddy that you'd rather have a hassel-free credit than wrangle over the intellectual rights.

That way you both win.

(With few exceptions, you really ARE NOT talking about that much money on the table for a first-sale screenplay.)

Anonymous said...

Hi. I'm the one with the original question.

The screenwriter is being more than fair, giving me shared credit on the screenplay. My question is whether a screenplay option takes away my rights to publish the novel (whether or not the film ever gets made). Another question, is whether an agent/publishing house would be miffed that movie rights had already been "sold."

This is an autobiographical novel very close to my heart, so it's not something I can easily "move on" from. It's not like a detective novel series where I could simply go on to the next book. (It happens to be about Iraq, which is why it's generated movie interest.)

Thanks for all your helpful comments.

Harry Connolly said...

FYI: If you are dealing with a WGA signatory company, you as screenwriters do not have control over what credit you will get. You can not work something out with your partner or have it put into the contract.

The WGA determines credits. If the film gets made, credits get submitted to the WGA. If anyone (like you, the director, a rewriter brought onto the project later, whoever) wants to contest them, you enter arbitration. The credit that comes out of arbitration is what ends up on the screen, and that's the end of that story.

I reiterate one thing: the person asking the question should wander over to a decent screenwriting site/message board/blog (of which there are dozens) and ask there.

Harry Connolly said...

I cross-posted with the original questioner. Let me add this:

If this is an autobiographical novel, different rules may apply. They may intend pay you for the rights to your story just to protect themselves legally.

I think you should ask somewhere else, where you can get more expertise.

Mark said...

Yeah an Iraq memoir would be timely right now. I do know of one writer, journalist Phil Garlington, who's had an unpublished novel optioned with ICM for years and it still hasn't sold.

Anonymous said...

I'd check with an entertainment lawyer, but I think the important thing is to make sure you don't sign away novelization rights. If you do sign away those rights, then whoever buys the script gets your novel. Again, it would be worth your time to check out the WGA info or consult with an attorney.

Anonymous said...

My agent sold the film rights to my novel before selling the novel itself. The book sold shortly after because of it, not in spite of it. We never went after Hollywood, it's just the way things worked out.

Brady Westwater said...

What your rights are going to be need to be spelled out in the contract. I am assuming you both will be be repped by the same agent for the screenplay which is why you need to hire a separate entertainment lawyer to answer these questions for you.

BitchySmurf said...

Your story does not have to be published. You can copyright it by sending an electronic copy to the screenwriter's guild of America (google it) and by paying about 25$ (you can do all this online with your credit card). Your story is protected by the guild in your name.
Why would the poster get the copyright on the novel through the screenwriter's guild? Am I dense and reading this wrong.

If I were you, poster, I'd send out queries about the novel why you finish it up. Mention that it's already being turned into a movie. Hollyweird takes awhile to get things rolling.

I think whether or not agents would be interested depends on the agent and the story. If it's a great story then I think that's all that matters.

Just pay attention to subsidary rights when you're signing contracts with a publisher and studio. You'd probably want it clear to the studio that they don't own the rights to make a novel about the movie, and the publisher doesn't own the rights to making a movie from the novel.

The novel and screenplay will stand alone in terms of copyright no matter what you do.

Sal said...

Wherever you may be, there may be a Lawyers for the Arts group. Check California Lawyers for the Arts to see what sorts of services they'd offer at low or no cost to someone in your shoes.

Anonymous said...

Under the WGA you will retain separate rights in a novelization.

To be an adaptation, the script has to be based on something previously published or produced.

Studios hate it when the rights kak things up with writing partners who show up unannounced or difficult chain-of-title issues like this one. Maybe it's more important to share the screenwriting credit than get the book published. It's certainly worth more monetarily. You risk blowing the deal trying to figure this out.

Sorry to be anonymous but my position in the movie business makes it difficult to writing in the open.