Adapting Your Novel For Hollywood (and a giveaway!)

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Robert Marlow is an award-winning novelist, screenwriter, and adaptation
consultant. He recently closed a Hollywood script deal—an adaptation he wrote
and will executive produce, with an estimated budget of $60 million. John’s
nonfiction articles have appeared in the Writer’s Digest annuals, The Writer,
Writers’ Journal, Parade, The Huffington Post and elsewhere. John’s new book, Make
Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood
], contains advice from authors, screenwriters, producers, directors and others
whose movies have collectively earned over $50 billion and scores of Academy
Award nominations. John blogs at .
Adapting Your Story for Hollywood:
Interview with John Robert Marlow
copyright © by John Robert Marlow
John Marlow: Why not? I don’t know anyone with a story to tell—book, play,
narrative nonfiction, whatever—who doesn’t want to see that story on the
screen. Books reach a lot of people. Movies reach more. People who don’t read,
people who can’t read, people in other countries where your book hasn’t been
translated—all of them watch movies.
top-selling authors in the world all have heavy film involvement. Regardless of
how successful they were before the films, the movies carried them to new heights.
We—humans—started out telling stories around campfires. And movies are the
global campfires of our time.
now, 8 of the top 10 highest-grossing movies of all time are adaptations.
Sixteen of the top 20, and well over 50 of the top 100. This is what Hollywood
wants. They understand the value of great source material, and they’re willing
to pay for great adaptations.
“average” sale to Hollywood can pay all your expenses for years; in some cases,
a lifetime. You can’t say that of books or any other storytelling medium. So,
do it to reach a global audience with your story, do it for the money—but do
pays better—selling the rights to your story, or selling a screenplay?
Marlow: It depends on what you bring to the table. If your story is unknown or
little-known and doesn’t exist as a book, play, comic or what-have-you, you’re
going to have a tough time even pitching it because there’s nothing for buyers
to look at and evaluate on the merits. You wind up trying to sell a concept, and
“idea sales” are a very small fraction of what they once were.
buyer has to do all the work, and that costs money they might otherwise pay to
you, if you had a book or play etc. If they do pay you a significant amount,
almost all of it is going to come if and when the movie gets made; you’ll
likely get very little up front, because at this point, no one’s even sure the
idea can be turned into a good script. There’s a high level of uncertainty, of
risk—and that’s reflected in the up-front price.
the other end of the scale, if you’ve got an extraordinarily successful
property like, say, Harry Potter or Twilight or 50 Shades of
—you can pretty much write your own ticket, no screenplay required.
properties come with a built-in audience of millions of people, so
investors—and make no mistake; that’s how buyers think of themselves, as
investors—they know that they’d have to screw things up pretty badly to not
make a fortune on the adaptation. So they’re willing to pay for that certainty.
In E.L. James’ case [50 Shades of Gray], they paid $9 million for the
rights alone—without a screenplay.
of us dwell between those two extremes. And in that vast middle ground—and
absent a very significant and proven fan base, or nationwide public awareness
of your true-life story—you will almost invariably be paid far more for a
screenplay than for mere “rights” to anything else. But keep in mind—you don’t
have to be able to write a screenplay in order to sell one; you just have to
own it. More on that in the book.
average book advance these days hovers between $10,000-$20,000. The average
selling price for a spec screenplay—by someone who’s never sold a screenplay
before—is $300,000-$600,000. Two of the writers I interviewed for the book sold
their first scripts for $3.2 and $5 million.
two sales are wild exceptions, of course. But the point, as Oscar-nominated
producer Michael Nozik says in the book, is this: “Hollywood’s always looking
for the easiest, quickest path to the end zone. Sometimes I’ll look at source
material and think, this could be great, but I have no idea how to make it work
as a movie, the story’s just too difficult to translate.
for the same reason, studios are less willing to consider source material than
finished screenplays based on the same material, and they’re willing to spend
more when they can see it well executed, because you’re helping them get to the
end zone—a finished film—quicker.”
it’s all about risk. Hollywood learned the hard way that a great book or other
story doesn’t always translate into a great movie. If you can show them a great
screenplay—there’s nothing to think about; it’s a touchdown pass. And
from that, they can see the movie.
so they pay more. Much more. They may also pay for a screenplay based on a book
they’d never have bought at all, because they couldn’t see how it would
yet, even though the script sells for, from what you say, a minimum of 3,000%
more than the book, you also say a book author can make more money from the
book than the movie. Can you explain that?
Marlow: Sure. The reason is simple: movies sell books. Two examples from my
interviews: Alan Glynn’s first novel went out of print, despite good reviews
from The New York Times and Publishers Weekly. Once the movie—Limitless—came
out, it brought his book, in his words, “back from the dead.” Suddenly he’s
watching a trailer for the movie during the Super Bowl.
Swarup’s Slumdog Millionaire, on the other hand, had been translated into
36 languages before the movie even came out—but, again in the author’s words,
the movie “catapulted the book to a different level altogether.” It took the
movie to get him on the New York Times Bestseller List.
screenplay sells for a fixed amount; whether that’s $300,000 or $5 million. And
whether the movie makes $2 or $2 billion, that’s all you’re ever going to
get—plus bonuses and what-have-you. When you sell a book, you get a royalty for
every copy sold.
you sell an insane number of books, you make an insane amount of money. And
what happens is this: a successful movie sells an insane number of
books—causing you to ultimately make more money from the book than you ever
will from the movie. Even though you would never have made that money from the
book, without the movie.
are all kinds of other synergies at play as well, which come in even before one
or both have sold—but only if you have both book and screenplay.
the book, you devote a good deal of space to movie contracts, which is
something I haven’t seen in other books. What’s the thinking behind that?
Marlow: Forewarned is fore-armed, was the thinking. Entertainment law is its
own little world, and even attorneys who practice IP—intellectual property—for
a living can easily wind up making huge mistakes. Things that couldn’t possibly
happen in a book contract with a New York publisher. So what chance does a
writer have?
of the authors I interviewed—Vikas Swarup, who wrote Slumdog Millionaire—told
me about another author who sold the movie rights to a book and wound up with
very little money, and his onscreen credit sandwiched between the make-up
artist and the caterer, pretty much.
granted, that happened in India and not here—but you don’t want to wind up a
poster-child for What Went Wrong. Studio attorneys work for the buyers, and
their job is to get as much as they can for the studio; they’d be out of a job
if they didn’t. And they’re very good at what they do. If you go up against
them, alone—one way or another, you will lose.
So I
interviewed some of the top entertainment attorneys working for people on the
other side—writers, producers, directors, actors. These are heavy hitters;
their firms represent people like James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, The Tolkien Estate
and so on.
it was a way for me to learn more about the business side myself, while also
allowing me to offer a sort of basic primer for readers on what you can and
can’t get—and what’s negotiable—in a Hollywood contract. Because if you don’t
inform yourself in this area, you’ll find yourself swimming with sharks in very
deep waters
are some of the high points?
Marlow:  Just to pick a few… You can
usually keep the book and play and various other rights. You will never, ever
get the right to injunctive relief—meaning you can’t hold up the movie while
some legal issue is decided. You’ll likely keep sequel and prequel rights in
non-movie formats; the buyer will likely be able to sequel and prequel the
movie, but will not be allowed to base future movies on your future books
unless they pay you again to do that. You’ll get paid for remakes and spinoffs.
What’s negotiable? Some of the rights, the amounts you’re paid, your onscreen
credits. This last is crucial; excepting only money, credits are the lifeblood
of Hollywood. Some of them can be arbitrated away by the guilds and neither you
nor the buyer have any say in the matter; others cannot.
you have a deal on the table, you need an entertainment attorney to negotiate.
Not an agent or manager; they don’t know enough, and they tend to focus mostly
on the money and the credits because they get a piece of one or both. And
certainly not Uncle Elmer who went to law school. You must have an
entertainment attorney, and a good one. Once you have a real deal on the table,
you can find one to work on contingency, or you can shell out $600 an hour.
Most people choose the percentage.
if you don’t have a screenplay to sell?
Marlow: There are a number of options presented at length in the book. Simply
put, you can write one yourself, get someone more experienced to help you, or
even have them write it for you. Whatever path you choose, having a great
screenplay adaptation of your work is the best bet.
for some reason that’s impossible, you can put together a “Pitch Pack.” It’s a
bit like a book proposal, but for the screenplay adaptation. What you’re doing
in this case is trying to sell the film rights and a detailed adaptation pitch.
while that’s not ideal, it can be quite a bit better than saying, “Here’s my
book, it would make a great movie.” Because now—with the pitch pack—you’re
showing potential buyers how the book would be adapted. It may not get
Hollywood to the end zone—but it does point the way. And in some cases, that
might be enough.