Mark Terry

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Publishing Basics, Part 3: Movie Rights

March 4, 2009
Admit it. You dream of a movie deal.

Maybe because of the money, which is rumored to be considerable--at least compared to  your advances and royalties--or because you think you'll get to go to the premier and hobnob with the stars.

Movie rights are part of sub rights or subsidiary rights. The clause in the contract tends to describe them like this: "In the case of dramatic, including film, television, radio or other broadcasting rights..."

Depending on your agent and your publisher, you may get total control of these, in other words 100%. Or not. Sometimes publishers insist on a cut, maybe 10%, maybe 20%, maybe 50%. It depends.

Production companies/producers, if they actually decide they might--key word "might"--want to make a movie based on one of your books, they typically offer an option. Here's where we get tricky. And here's my disclaimer: although I've had nibbles, I've never had a film option so this is going to be kind of general.

Let's say a production company decides they want the rights to make a movie based on your book. They'll offer an option. Let's say the option is, just to keep the numbers simple, they will pay you $100,000 for a one-year option.

What that means is they have one year from the signing of the contract to get a green light from a studio or some other source of money to actually do something with your book. They probably spent some money having a script based on it (maybe), but then they've shopped that around and studios or people with money have said, "no way" or "sure." Or, in the case of Hollywood, probably, "Oh, I love it, it's fantastic, I can see George Clooney as the lead, I'll get back with you." Then they don't.

So, ready to spend that $100,000?

Don't. Because you probably won't get it. You'll get a percentage of it, a sort of down payment on the $100,000. Probably 10%. So you'll get $10,000. That's good. A nice chunk of change. Except your agent gets a percentage of that, quite possibly higher than the 15% he or she gets to sell your novel to a publisher. Maybe 20%. And your publisher might get a cut.

Movie contracts are a byzantine mess and unless you have an agent who specializes in movie contracts, your agent might suggest hooking up with a film agent or entertainment attorney, who will either get a flat fee or perhaps another percentage. This is something I've recently discussed with my own agent and the entertainment attorney would get an additional 5%. What the hell, it's currently only imaginary money. (Just don't forget the way this is getting carved up, though. That $10,000 is now down about 35% and we haven't even taken into consideration taxes. Pretty soon you'll be lucky to walk away with $4500).

Okay, so far so good. Now, if in that period of time--one year, for instance--the producer gets a green light, you get the rest of the money. Go you! If they don't, the producer may ask to renew and  you get $10,000 minus everybody else's cuts all over again. Go you! Free money! In some ways this might be the happiest route to go. A number of authors have had books optioned year after year after year without the film actually getting made. The first one off the top of my head is "Catch Me If You Can." That book was optioned about 20 times before Spielberg made the movie with Tom Hanks. The author commented it was great, he kept getting about $20,000 a year for a book that wasn't really selling any more.

Now, let's say they actually get a green light and go into pre-production, which appears to me to be a nebulous phrase that means "someone at a studio said yes but we're years from actually starting to shoot a film." You should get the rest of your $100,000.

Depending on your contract, if the film actually gets made, you will probably get more money. Maybe even a royalty based on how much money the film makes. I have no clue how much that would actually be. I know that the late Jim Cash, who co-wrote films like "Top Gun" and "The Secret of My Success" and "Dick Tracy" with his writing partner Jack Epps, commented once that for every videotape of "Top Gun" sold he got about 5 cents. For the writer my guess is that royalties based on films comes to a percentage of a penny. For instance, 1/10th of a percentage point. That's okay, I guess, since a moderately successful movie can make millions of dollars. Of course, stories of Hollywood accounting are legendary, so even if to all extents and purposes the movie is wildly successful, you might get no money unless you sue the studio for it.

Like I said, I have no direct experience with this. Let me just throw out a few things I have read or heard about authors who've had movies made based on their books.

It takes time, usually. David Morrell's novel "First Blood" was published in 1972. The Sylvester Stallone movie came out in what, 1980 or so?

If you write series fiction, ie., novels based on a recurring character, there's a common clause in a film option that means that if Producer A has an option on Book A starring your character, Producer B, C, D, or E cannot option Book B, C, D, or E as long as Producer's A option is still current. This happened to John Sandford and his Lucas Davenport novels. One movie was made for TV starring Eric LaSalle as Lucas Davenport. (Interesting casting, isn't it? Not quite as interesting as Whoopie Goldberg as Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr, but interesting nonetheless).

Along those lines, a successful adaption of a series character's novel can make future options quite easy to do. Take Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels and Jesse Stone novels. Spenser was a successful TV show starring Robert Urich, there was a spin-off about Hawk called "A Man Called Hawk" and then there were made-for-TV movies based on the Spenser novels starring Joe Mantegna. The Jesse Stone novels have been made into made-for-TV films starring Tom Seleck and just Sunday night one aired that wasn't based on the books but was based on an original script not written by Robert B. Parker.

On the other hand, a movie was made out of  one of Sarah Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski novels (titled: "V.I. Warshawski") starring Kathleen Turner. The idea was it would become a series of movies starring Turner. The movie sucked (really, it did) and no other movie has been based on it since.

Your money goes down for sequels. At least it did in the case of David Morrell. In his book on writing he notes how the contracts for "First Blood" indicated the author would get 50% of each previous movie's option if sequels were made. He noted that since Rambo dies at the end of "First Blood" the novel he didn't think that was an issue. Surprise! In the film he lives and has since spawned 3 additional film sequels. I don't remember the numbers but the gist of it was that if Morrell received $100,000 for "First Blood," then he received "$50,000" for "Rambo Part II," and $25,000 for "Rambo Part III" and presumably $12,500 for "Rambo." Or whatever the hell the movies were called. The numbers do not get adjusted for inflation.

On the other hand, Morrell also talks about how there were merchandising clauses in his contract for "First Blood" which he thought was ridiculous, as was there a clause about animation rights. Well, yes, there were Rambo lunch boxes and T-shirts and action figures and in fact there was an animated cartoon. So these things do happen and the money is undoubtedly cashed pretty much without question.

Other random facts: about 1 in 20 novels that get optioned actually get made into films. I don't have a number for the percentage of novels that actually get optioned, but I bet it's really, really low, something like 1 in 1000.

Now, my personal experiences: all the Derek Stillwater novels, including the upcoming one, have gotten interest from production companies. I've talked to at least one of the producers. To-date, nothing has happened. It's happened enough now that I don't even bother getting very excited about it other than to think, "Well, what would you do with the money if you got it?" then packed it away with all the other Lottery winning daydreams. It's fun to do, but you can't pay bills with it.

If your novel is a thriller or a femjep novel, the odds of an option go up. If it's sci-fi, I'm afraid the odds aren't good. Although a hell of a lot of SF makes it onto the screen, not much of it seems to be based on novels, and the ones that do are based on SF written 40 years ago. Straight mysteries and cozies are a tough sell.

The hotter the novel, the more likely an option. John Sandford, optioned. Janet Evanovich, optioned. Rick Riordan, not only optioned for the Percy Jackson novels, but in pre-production and the actors already chosen. Christopher Paolini's novel whose novel about a dragon was optioned and made into a pretty shitty film. (I know, I saw it twice in the theater due to family logistics, and we own a copy of the DVD, which was watched once. On it's own it would have made an okay movie for the SciFi Network, right up there with, say, "Rock Monster" or "Leviathan." But really, there's unlikely to be a sequel).

Still, the "Die Hard" films were based on a novel by an author that was not a brand name whatsoever, so anything is possible.

A friend of mine, Jeff Cohen, had a novel optioned a few years ago. I e-mailed him to congratulate him and you could just tell he was shrugging when he said, "Yeah, well, it doesn't come to that much money, but it'll help pay a couple bills." I thought at the time he was being modest, but now I don't think so.

Jody Picoult described Hollywood this way: "New York publishers say, 'I hate you, I hate you, I hate you,' and then let you in grudgingly. Hollywood says, 'I love you, I love you, I love you," then does nothing."

My experiences have been almost identical. I would probably add that publishers not only let you in grudgingly, but as if they're doing you a favor. Hollywood's all rainbows and moonbeams and unicorns until they decide they're not interested and then that's it, goodbye.

Again, if you know more about this--and somebody undoubtedly does--please share what you know with us.

Mark Terry


Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Well, I have had two options. Notice you are not going to the multiplex to see the movies. :-)

One, with Warner Brothers, was for Mafia Chic to be made into a television series. I got option money . . . and then there were all SORTS of ins and outs related to even how my name would appear in the credits, a percentage on the back end, as well as licensing insanity and so on. A script was written by an amazing writer affiliated with Judging Amy. It was marvelous, I thought. I believe he killed off the mother of my character--or maybe her dad . . . and made some other relatively minor changes that really didn't bother me at all. Then . . . writer's strike. Option has lapsed.

Another time, I had a deal with a less well-known producer, but I had script approval. At one point it was pitched to Showtime (different book, by the way). The entire experience was kind of demoralizing for a lot of different reasons . . . The book was highly personal and it was just difficult seeing it morph into something I didn't believe in. And some personality crap.

ANYHOO, my agent usually fights for an 85/15 split with the publisher (and has been successful each time, if I recall), and then in negotiations has worked for things like script approval or what have you.

I was also very close to an option for the Joan of Arcadia girl (Amber Tamblyn)--for Rock My World (YA). That ended up falling victim to end-of-year budget cuts and no one wanting to pony up the dough.

What I have generally found is unless you have a really DRIVEN producer who is passionate about YOUR project, the result is even less likely to happen. And if it's a TV project, the show runner better be a name.

My half a cent.

Frankly, I love options. I never plan on them being made into a movie. And I get extra $$ that is like "found" money . . . .

12:17 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I got a 90/10 split on the recent contract, but the last contract I think we might have gotten all of it, I'm not sure I'd have to check.

Your experiences sound fairly typical. It's nice, you cash the check, but after the initial euphoria it's probably best to just forget about it.

My impression too is before they even pony up an option they've got to be pretty into your book. Not just the scout, but the producer, a reader, and maybe even their "house" scriptwriter, who might give it a read and say, "Yeah, I can work with it" or "No, I don't want to deal with it."

I always remind myself that it costs literally millions of dollars to make a movie so their commitment should be pretty high.

I also think if you can stay in the biz long enough something will get optioned.

12:28 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

By the way, Erica, was the scriptwriter Paul Guyot?

12:55 PM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

No . . . it was Alex Taub. I found him incredibly gracious. And he really "got" the feel of the book SO well. The script made me laugh out loud in spots. It was REALLY weird to see my characters in another format and someone else writing their adventures.


P.S. It kind of reminded me of the Seinfeld episode when they made the pilot and all these other actors played Jerry et al.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Linda Pendleton said...

My late husband’s series of novels, The Executioner: Mack Bolan has been optioned a number of times over the years, first in 1970 or ‘71. This month is the 40th anniversary of publication of his first book in the series, War Against the Mafia. Twice the Writers Guild strikes interfered, the last time in 1988 or so. And I’ve turned down a couple of deals that had lots of bucks involved but we could not negotiate for decent terms…and not have the work tied up for years after I’m gone….so I walked away. And I have no regrets. If Mack Bolan ever makes it to the screen I doubt Don’s long time fans will even recognize his character. At least that is the impression I have gotten in what producers/directors have said about putting Don’s character on the big screen. Always puzzles me why Hollywood buys a property that has had great success, even Internationally, and then throws that aside to make “something” new of it. Seems they could save a lot of money by creating their own new project.

What you do have to watch out for are production companies that want to have an option dirt cheap or hold on to the property for an unreasonable length of time.

So I would say, don’t get too excited about options and movie rights because forty years could go by...and nothing ever get done….

1:07 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

THanks for stopping by, Linda!

4:44 AM  
Blogger Hawkeye23 said...

Someone tried to make a list of authors who have had their books adapted in many years. I tried to see if anyone had managed to have their books turned into a comprehensive series of R-rated adaptations. I cannot recall anyone who has done anything comparable to what J.K. Rowling has with the Harry Potter (always PG or PG-13) films. I find this interesting, since I used to think that private eye novels took up more space than books about wizards in the modern world.

5:38 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I have recently written a screenplay that I was hired to write. I subsequently wrote the book for it and was paid to do that. The thought process by the producer of the script and book is that writing the book will cover the script and characters and concept so that when the script package is financed, the person who owns the book will have control over being paid royalties on the movie as well. Is that true? Does that give the book rights owner rights to royalties from the movie if he is not the executive producer [financier owning any points on the film] of the movie?
Ronald Farnham

9:19 PM  
Anonymous Writerman said...

You are right on about Hollywood. I'll just add that in addition to giving you lip service about how much they like your book or screenplay, getting to that "no" can take years.

They'll string you along because they are pitching various projects to investors and you never know when an investor will like yours. So your project increases their odds. But it may take 10 years and 200 script revisions/versions before they finally tell you their studio is going out of business or that you are free to option or discuss the project with other producers (because we just know a ton of

So I've had to calm down a few friends who've been approached about "making a movie" out of their book. Take it all with a complete salt-shaker of salt.

7:33 AM  

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