How a Book Starts to Become a Movie
No, this is not me announcing the start of negotiations or any sort of movie/TV deal on my properties. As you’ll soon see, that wouldn’t be an appropriate time to make the announcement, and if I had something to share then I’d probably put it up in a spot with a tad more traffic than the blogs. But the question does get raised regularly enough by fans (which I appreciate) that I thought it might be worth diving into the process of how that actually happens, for those curious or ambitious in the crowd.
We’re going to have to start this one off with an extra-strong disclaimer: All of this should be viewed as a general guideline, at most. I’m writing about a process that I’ve spoken to others and researched at length, but haven’t experienced firsthand, not to mention we’re talking about an industry that runs heavily on favors, clout, and other social currency. I’m going to talk about the process overall, if it doesn’t match to what you or someone you know experienced, I have no trouble believing that. For those of us who have to stick to normal channels though, this is about what we can expect.
For the vast majority of writers, statistically speaking, this is the highest point we’re likely to reach, if we’re among those who even make it this far. How this works is that someone will reach out to you or your representative, interested in making your property into a film. Assuming the rights are currently available, you’ll negotiate what you both feel to be a fair price/timetable for the option.
In case anyone hasn’t had to mess with stocks, an option is when you pay for the rights to purchase something at a later date; making it an “option” to buy, if you will. The owner agrees to not sell to anyone else during the agreed upon timeframe, and sometimes you’ll even have the purchase price worked into the contract. Once you’ve been paid, those rights are no longer available until the time period ends.
Let’s play with examples, because that’s a lot easier for this one. Svelte Thruster’s manuscript about sex-tractors has garnered interest from Rail Cokington, Hollywood producer to the stars. Rail wants to pitch this movie to a bunch of studios, but he can’t pitch without being sure he can deliver the property upon studio pickup. Rail reaches out to Svelte, who cuts him a deal. $1,000 a year, for three years, and Rail can option the book. Rail pays $3k, spends his next few years pitching the book, and Svelte collects the cash for simply agreeing not to sell to anyone else during that timetable.
As I said at the start, for most of us, this is as far as it will ever go. There are so many projects pitched every year, and so few ever move past that stage. This is also why you don’t generally see experienced authors talking about or celebrating getting something optioned. It mostly means they ran into a nice payday, not that there’s actually a movie in the works.
Let’s be optimists here, and say that Rail Cokington is more than just his reputation. He’s got contacts, he’s got clout, he’s got the best porcelain power powder in town. By mixing all that together, Rail manages to score Svelte’s book some interest from an actual studio. They want to start development.
Now I’m writing this as one hurdle, however the truth is it’s basically a long-string of nothing but hurdles. This is where the show starts to take shape, a time of booming creativity, and constant worry. No one is committed yet, if the idea proves too dull, too costly, or too ambitious you could lose your footing instantly. That’s to say nothing of locking down talents, locations, facilities, etc. There are so many points for this to fall apart, and some factors that will be wildly out of your control. Think of the number of times you’ve read in passing about a studio’s management changing and all the prior projects getting axed. One bad flick while Svelte’s book is being adapted, and the whole division might get turned over.
This is a point where you might want to talk publicly about what’s happening; if I ever make it that far I certainly plan to write about the experience, but it would still be hubris to promise people that they’ll get to see anything. There are countless pilots that have never aired, and untold shows that didn’t even make it that far. But let’s keep the optimism train rolling and say that Rail works his magic, getting the project to the near-final phase.
I’m condensing a ton of business down into an easily disposable blog, so we’re going to have to cram a few milestones together here. The general sign of this point is the studio evaluating an actual demo of what the product would be. A pilot, maybe a test-shoot, something that puts all the work that’s been done together into a tangible output. There is a very real chance that your journey ends here, as well. It’s the point when all that pitch and possibility meet with the realities of what your team has been able to craft; a final output that the people in charge might decide they hate. It happens, that’s why they have these tests to begin with.
Assuming things went really well, you might get moved onto audience testing, or outright premiere, but more likely there will be other focus-groups and nitpicks before your actual audience gets to take a look at it. If you’re thinking that sounds like a curious order to things, you’re not wrong. That setup is how we had Deadpool test footage that executives passed on, and the internet went batshit for, but the system is what it is so better you’re at least aware of it.
As a kid who grew up on television, I would love to see some of my works adapted for a visual medium down the line. That’s part of why I know all this, despite not having gotten the tap myself. When/If the day comes, I want to be ready for the uphill battle I’ll be fighting. Because hey, I already made one impossible career move happen. Why not go for two?