Pub Rants

Hollywood Rant (Part Two)

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Rant is late today. Too much wheelin’ and dealin’ going on at the agency to have time to Blog. Now New York is closed for the day so here I am.

And just so folks know, I don’t do weekends.

Back to Hollywood and that fifty-page contract from a major studio. Writers would definitely be in less of a hurry to sign on that dotted line if they’d actually seen some of the clauses that are contained in these contracts. It ain’t pretty. So let me do a little education.

The ugly reality of a movie deal is this. Unless you have an extreme amount of clout (and I mean JK Rowling level—okay that’s extreme but think high level of clout), an author will have very little say in the script or how a movie will be made. The studio can simply take the idea from the book, say it’s “based on the book” and pretty much tell whatever story the studio wants to.

This applies to sequels as well because guess what, if you want a movie deal with a major studio, they will insist on owning your characters in film. Forever. You get to own the characters in print.

The author gets to grin and bear it. Unless you don’t sell the film rights.

Feel like running right out there and signing on the dotted line now? Wait. There’s more.

Most authors will not see a dime beyond the option and the purchase price because most movies, depending on how much they cost to produce, the A-List salaries involved, and all other production expenses, would have to earn out a 100 million or more for an author to see any “contingent net proceeds” as contained in the contract.

Good heavens, you’re thinking. Why would anyone do a movie deal? This is awful.

In a lot of ways you’re right. But you’re also forgetting that having a book made into a film is a minor miracle. Very few movies are made in a year (and fewer book-to-film) and if yours is one of them…

And it’s magical to see your novel on the big screen—especially if it’s done right. And even it if it’s not, a movie will drive print sales like nobody’s business.

So many writers dream of writing full time and with a movie behind a book, that dream is likely to be a reality. If you didn’t hit the New York Times list before, you might now. Let’s say you pass on the movie deal. Your book may not become a hit and if it doesn’t, it’s unlikely a movie will ever be made of it period and that opportunity is lost.

Risks. This is why authors without clout often take the chance.

Now, as an agent, I do everything in my power to give my authors the opportunity to turn down a movie deal by getting one for them in the first place.

But the decision to sign on the dotted line ultimately has to be their own. I never push because it’s a lot to ask.

Robert Crais has not sold the film rights to his Elvis Cole series. I imagine he’s waiting to build enough clout needed to control the destiny of his character on the big screen. Or maybe he’ll never sell them. Maybe he’s smart. But his career is building to a level where those film rights are getting more and more attractive (and hence he has more and more clout in the negotiation).

But what if it didn’t? The truth is that most authors will never achieve that level of clout or that level of a writing career. For some folks, it doesn’t matter and they would never give up ownership of their characters or control of the material for film. They’ll turn down the movie offer no matter where they are in their career. I respect that.

So don’t be in a rush to sell your soul to Hollywood. It’s a high price and you need to know whether you’re willing to pay it.

22 Responses

  1. Anonymous said:

    I guess I always assume that the movie version of a book will be bad and/or that it will probably not reflect the novel. You always hear “the book was better.” So, because of this I don’t really think I’d have a problem signing that contract.

  2. Anonymous said:

    I wouldn’t miss out on a nationally run, two hour commercial for my book, complete with nationally televised trailers, print coverage, and newspaper ads. If the film version totally corrupts my “vision,” I’d just blame it on Hollywood, say I had nothing to do with the screenplay, and tell people to buy the book to get the real story. Despite the scary facts, I’d still sign that contract. 🙂

    Kim Reid

  3. Anonymous said:

    There was one book to movie transition where the film was an improvement: Jaws.

    There may be others, but that’s my favorite. I didn’t care for the book at all, barely reading it the one time and wondering how it ever sold, whereas I’ve seen the movie dozens of times. Go figure.

    Hoping that anyone (probably won’t be Spielberg, alas) might do my books as films is always there in my mental background…I have a mortgage to pay.

    As my agent in H’wood says, “It’s not selling out; it’s cashing IN.”

    Ker-ching, baby, ker-CHING! Let’s do lunch!

  4. Lisa Hunter said:

    Film is a collaborative medium, driven by marketing demands. If a studio is spending $100 million, they want the film to appeal as broadly as possible (hence the frequent dumbing down). A book can sell 200,000 copies and be a success. A Big Studio movie that sells 200,000 tickets gets everyone at the studio fired.

    No wonder so many of the screenwriters I know are writing novels/graphic novels/plays on the side. They want the creative control, i.e., not having to hear that the Beloved Grandmother character should be changed to a Spunky Sister character played by Paris Hilton.

  5. Anonymous said:

    But Princess of Pixies — what about the rest of us? A movie of your work would make a lot of people happy.

  6. M.E Ellis said:

    One trilogy of movies that weren’t as good as the books were Thomas Harris’ Lecter series. (I’m thinking my grammar is wrong here somewhere!)

    I found myself saying out loud, ‘Hey! That didn’t happen in the book…’

    Also one by John Grisham, and I found myself so annoyed that the film didn’t match that I had to stop watching the movie.

    Still, I’d probably say yes to that movie deal (like I’m ever going to be in that position!) for the reason Kristen mentioned, that to get that far is a major thing in itself and the opportunity may never come your way again.

    One life, one chance.


  7. The Beautiful Schoolmarm said:

    I would probably sign just for the publicity–and because I’ve got a mortgage to pay too. Sometimes, even if the movie isn’t like the book, it’s still a good movie.

    I send prayers up about certain directors though (Guillermo Del Toro, Peter Jackson . . .).

  8. Anonymous said:

    Well, as Kristin says, few get optioned, and even fewer get made. Most of the folks I know just cash the checks and sigh with relief when the option expires.

    Rumor has it Frank Herbert made much more money from options on DUNE – which were never exercised, than on the book itself – in the last years of his life.

    (Yeah, I know there were eventually a number of film adaptations. Still, he cashed checks for a LOT of years first.)

  9. Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said:

    Dear Anonymous,

    Why thank you for the kind words.

    Ok, a bit of personal opinion here. I like my Pixies. They’re little hotties, and pixies do not wear clothes usually. But, my story is not graphic or pornographic, and my three main characters are pixie children. I don’t want a movie to turn my pixies into something they are not. No Pixie porn, if you please!

    But, I’d still seriously consider selling the rights. I could always write to the Times and say, “Those nasty blighters in Hollywood got it all wrong! Read my book, and you’ll see.”

  10. Natalie Damschroder said:

    I would option my film rights in an instant.

    When I write a book, the vision is mine. When it’s published, that vision may be affected by the editor and the marketing department, but it’s still my vision.

    A movie is so much more collaborative than that, and it’s foolish to expect things not to change. No matter how well written, the image in any reader’s mind is unlikely to match the image in mine. So the screenwriter, the director, the actors, the editor, the cinematographer, even the costume designer, all have mini-visions that have to combine to create the film. I like to think I would be able to easily let go of my vision and put it in the hands of the others.

    One movie I liked better than the book was The Hunt for Red October. I’ve never been able to read Clancy after that book, because his stories are too bogged down in technicality for me. And in the movie, they kept the defection hidden, which made the suspense much tighter.

  11. daringadventurer1 said:

    (Same post, just corrected the grammar)

    Admittedly, I grew up around a bunch of Clancy fanatics and had pretty thorough-going spoilers going into Red October, but I never could figure out how viewers could be conned into thinking this was anything *but* a defection-c’mon, this is Sean Connery we’re talking about!

    The movie does a good job of showing how perfectly sympathetic, competent people don’t necessarily buy Jack Ryan’s take on what’s happening, but that doesn’t mean it successfully hides Ramius’s motives.

    Although Red October is probably Clancy’s best book, followed by Without Remorse (a good ol’ fashion bloodsoaked vigilante yarn straight out of the seventies), I agree with Natalie: the film is better. The book was a solid, topical techno-thriller in its day, the film is a minor classic.

  12. Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said:

    Clancy? Oh! I liked Red October as a book. The movie seemed slow moving and less convincing.

    My favorite Clancy book is Red Storm Rising. It’s now dated, but still good. I’ve read it several times, including a few times where I just read one of the story threads.

    Without Remorse was good too.

  13. Cindy Procter-King said:

    I can’t imagine, at this point in my career, at any rate, having a problem signing a movie contract. I don’t really have an interest in converting my novels to screenplays, so if someone else wanted to buy the rights to do so or not do so, yeah, I’d do it. It’s a risk to take to drive up sales.


  14. Gayle said:

    With the book I’m currently working on my (completely unrealistic) dream right now is to have it made into a musical. But as the music should be more opera-like, I’m not sure that would work.

    I wonder how much Gregory Maguire made/is making from his book Wicked being turned into a musical? Does anyone know? I have to say I like the musical version much better than the book.

  15. December Quinn said:

    Geez, I’d be happy just to sell enough books to pay the bills. 🙂

    I guess I just don’t think of this stuff…I want my books to sell. I want good advances, good reviews, and a solid readership. It would never even occur to me what kind of movie my books would make. (OK, tell a lie. One of them I think would make a great movie. But it would never occur to me to mention that to anyone but my husband, because I consider myself pretty biased. It’s like saying I think my daughter would make a great President someday. Of course I do! I’m her Mommy. What am I supposed to think-that she’s lucky if she ends up washing cars for a living?)

    Am I wierd for not considering this kind of thing?

  16. jason evans said:

    …a movie will drive print sales like nobody’s business.

    Isn’t that really the point? Authors want to sell books. If a movie helps, I say go for it. The movie will never be the book, so artistic control shouldn’t be vital. Contract language will never achieve true artistic control, anyway. The only way to snag true artistic control is to become a director.

  17. Anonymous said:


    I don’t think you’re weird. Before I found an agent, I’d given it just a passing thought. Once I got an agent, she asked if I was okay with trying to sell film rights, citing concerns discussed in Kristin’s post. So even if you aren’t thinking about it, your agent may be, and you may have to answer the question at some point, even if the odds are very much against an film rights option or sale.

  18. Julie Ann Shapiro said:

    In addition to movies there are often opportunities for writers to have short stories made into small films. I’ve seen many ads from production companies looking for short stories to film locally.

    Julie Ann Shapiro

  19. pennyoz said:

    A friend, a fellow author, had her character taken up as a cartoon. Long story but she had an agent renegotiate the contract. She got back her print privileges. Fat lot of good that ended up being. They changed the character and the circle of friends so much that she cannot write a book about her character.
    Colleen McCulloch hated her film version of Thornbirds. She laughs it off. (She’s got a great laugh.) She says “‘let’m rip’… I’ve had my fun with it. I just let them have fun with their bit.” Another version of move on folks. You should be into your next book anyway.
    I think that holding back on film rights until you are big and bad enough to be as big and bad as the ruthless, scruple-less film people can be sounds good in theory.
    (Dan Brown?)
    And another author who is very successful in her genre dropped into an author network of which I’m a member on her way home after a stint in Hollywood trying to nut out her screenplay plopped down in her chair and said she’d never never never be involved in anything again like that and that she’d just sell her film rights if she wanted and be done with it!!!!
    I think that if you are prepared to give up your characters and get on with it, then you do it without guilt. If you want them to resurface then don’t.
    I’m glad Margaret Mitchell sold them. Because they’ve never been able to do anything with those characters since, because the magic of Margaret Mitchell’s brain wasn’t there. Blah to the attempt at a sequel.
    Sometimes you wonder. You want to buy in an area because its leafy and pretty. Move in and cut down all the trees because they drop icky leaves all over the place, including the swimming pool. They probably end up doing the same unless the story is bigger than the film people such as Harry Potter and Scarlett O’Hara – where the public won’t let you… I think you should expect to end up with pieces you hate or characters who are nothing like those that lived for that period inside your heaa and were so much a part of you at the time. But it’s called being overly precious – get on with it…
    The film rights is one decision.
    It’s those electronic rights that I am scared of. I hate those clauses, and equate them to JAWS.