Monday, 31 March 2014

How To Sell Your Book To Hollywood

Walt Morton, Novelist & Screenwriter, shares tips with JJ Marsh

Tell us a bit about yourself, Walt. How did you get involved in the movie business?

Walt Morton
In 1988, I had just moved across the country to Los Angeles. I knew nothing about Hollywood but I thought I could probably write and sell an original screenplay because many screenplays I paged through seemed dumb, wooden, or the work of a chimpanzee. How hard could it be? Over the next eight years I wrote seven screenplays. I even earned some money and had one script bought outright. I worked for a producer as a writer-for-hire like in the old Hollywood days.

Movies based on original screenplays have become rarer and rarer. To make this clear, an "original" screenplay is a screenplay that is not based on a novel or TV show or toy or comic book or anything else. It just starts as a writer’s idea for a movie.

Starting in the 1990s the average cost of making a Hollywood studio film skyrocketed with the associated costs of marketing and global distribution. Today, any big studio movie with star actors represents an investment by the studio of over $100 million dollars.

Scared studio executives almost never have the guts to make original material anymore, so seek ideas already vetted in the consumer marketplace. They’d rather bet on something already popular as a book, novel, TV show, comic, etc. This is not rocket science.

The realization almost nobody was buying original screenplays put me on the slow road to being a novelist. That, and a conversation I had with Michael Crichton, back in 1997. Crichton said:

"When I write a novel I get paid for that. Then I get paid again for the movie rights. And then paid again when they hire me to write the screenplay. And maybe I even get paid to direct it. And then there may be pay for a sequel. If you have a good idea -- you should get paid for it five times."

Hearing that was a slap in the face and I felt dumb for ever writing screenplays. Still, it took me awhile to start writing novels.

In Hollywood today, the most desirable thing is "intellectual property" (novel, book, toy, etc.) very popular with the public. Further, this I.P. should be "hot" -- which means exploitable in every way possible.

A literary novel like Richard Yates's REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (1961) took forty years to become a quality film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and even then only made a disappointing $20 million dollars (losing $80 million dollars in the process). But you do get to feel good and win some awards. Still -- no one is going to build a "Revolutionary Road theme park." Nor will there be toys, spin-offs, or a long-running TV show. For the pure reason of financial exploitability, studio executives get a lot more excited about genre material like Twilight or fan favorites like Spider-Man than quality literary novels.

The dirty secret of Hollywood is that quality literary novels usually make dreadfully dull movies.

OK, selling film rights to your work is an attractive option to many authors. But whispers and rumours surrounding the mysterious process make it a daunting prospect. Can I start at the beginning? Back in the day when I sought a traditional publisher, the process was 1. Submit to an agent. 2. Agent takes you on. 3. Agent sells to publisher. Is there a similar process in film?

At the top-end of the food chain, if you are a traditionally-published author, you probably already have an agent, (i.e. William Morris Agency). If that agent is in New York, they will have a counterpart at a branch office in Los Angeles involved in selling rights and "packaging" projects. If you are in this echelon of writer (James Patterson, Harlan Coben, etc.) your latest novel may even be read by Hollywood in pre-publication galleys or e-mailed around as a PDF.

Hollywood "film" agents play a slightly different game than New York "book" agents. The book agent is trying to find a publisher who will pay for an author's work. The film agent is trying to assemble the "package" that might become a movie. And a package has a lot of moving parts including possibly -- novel / screenwriter / director / actor / actress / studio / etc -- and all those parts need to line up for a giant golden paycheck to fall out of the sky.

But people in Hollywood are not dumb (contrary to popular opinion) and they are constantly looking for “good” material that could possibly become a good / profitable movie. The indie author should spend 95% of their time than in crafting good material. Honestly, you should spend all your time making the best book you can, and much less time in blogging, tweeting, schmoozing and publicizing. Because at the end of the day, no amount of schmoozing will turn a crap book into a good movie.

Let me repeat that:


To defuse any argument, I am sure some literary snob will say: "What about Twilight? That was a lightweight book for teenage girls!" The arena of literary taste and postmodern criticism... while Stephenie Meyer might not be the greatest literary stylist, she presented a great idea with huge popularity potential.

The best advice for indie authors is to write good books, entertain people and sell well on Amazon. If you can do that, you won’t need to call Hollywood. They will call you. It worked for Amanda Hocking. She’s a good example of a writer who was productive, pleased her fans, and built an audience. Eventually, Hollywood calls. It’s not that unusual.

Can you explain exactly what a ‘treatment’ consists of?

A proper screenplay is as precise in format and structure as an architect's plan for a 30-floor skyscraper. It runs between 118 and 122 pages (one page per minute of screen running time) and is almost exactly 20,000 words. A treatment is a much more informal document that might be 4,000 to 12,000 words and is a kind of summary of how a project might be presented as a movie. Treatments read like a short story and may be used either as a production tool as a kind of intermediary on the way to developing a screenplay or a sales tool to get a producer or actor interested.

For the novelist, you should encourage interested parties to read your novel -- if it's any good -- and if they don't have time to read it you may question if they are seriously interested. Any time you have a meeting with someone and you become aware the other person has not actually read your work, for whatever reason, a flashing red warning light should go off in the writer’s brain because this is a sure sign you will be treated awfully in the near future.

One suggestion I heard is to create a comic book or graphic novel version of your book.

If you have the skill and (considerable) resources to make this happen it’s not a terrible idea. Agents, producers, development people all love comic books. There are several of reasons for this. The biggest one is that a harried studio executive on the phone for 14 hours a day gets a comic book or graphic novel, s/he will have the capacity to digest it in five minutes. Reading a novel would take some actual time, peace, isolation, concentration – all things in short supply. Moreover, a graphic novel version is easier to visualize even if you have a fried imagination and a bad hangover. The colorful simplicity of a comic book says: “hey – this could be a movie.”

Two other factors that support this thought are the massive success of blockbuster movies spun off comic book titles like Batman, X-Men, Iron Man, and Spider Man. You get a sense of the new prestige of comic books when you go to a convention like Comicon, which is now a feeding frenzy of Hollywood development and networking. So, the real answer is – YES – if you had a comic book adaptation of your novel it would be easier to get it SEEN, and possibly develop producer interest, but this is no sure-fire guarantee and producing a decent graphic novel is a lot of work and thousands of dollars if you are hiring artists to do it for you.

And would it make sense to write the screenplay version yourself? Surely studios want to hire their own screenwriters?

Screenwriting is a different skill-set from writing a novel. It requires mostly the ability to condense and dramatize. Also to simplify. Sometimes, details quite interesting to read in a novel become mere background in a screenplay. And you must literally think about replacing long sections of a novel with a single picture, a map, a photo, etc. The good news is -- if you are able to write a novel, a screenplay is a lot less work than the novel you wrote. 100,000 words versus 20,000. Primarily, you just need to cut description, keep the best dramatic moments and save the best dialog and you are most of the way there.

As with a comic book, it’s generally easier to get a producer to read a screenplay because they will be able to read it more quickly than your novel, and since it’s in screenplay form it is one step closer to being imagined as potentially a movie. The producer would rather have a screenplay adaptation of your novel written by an A-list screenwriter like David Koepp because if he had that, it would be easier to get other people in the industry to read it and easier to attract a star, a director, and make a package to take into a studio. But a David Koepp adaptation might cost the producer a $500,000 fee, and if your version of the book you know so well is free, it can be attractive. The downside is you are not getting paid to write a screenplay up front, but you may be paid a token fee later. The best scenario is for you to write it, then David Koepp gets hired to “polish” it. Then you share credit with an A-list screenwriter, and by association you may become one.

One tip I heard last week was the importance of the title. Apparently some books have been picked up on the strength of title alone.

It’s very rare. I can’t think of one that turned into a good movie. And you don’t get paid substantial amounts if someone is just buying a title, unless for example, you miraculously have the movie rights to a title like “WIKILEAKS.” Hollywood is a land of ideas and they are traded around like currency. Sometimes things of little substance like a title can rise for a moment. Book titles are often changed as movies get made and this is a long-standing common practice (though dumb) driven by marketing executives in movie studios who like to give little paper questionnaires to test audiences. Generally, the thinking is: “If it’s a really famous book we can’t change the title because there is brand recognition, but if it’s not too famous, we’ll stick a thumb in and improve it.” Thus, Stephen Hunter’s POINT OF IMPACT becomes the dumber, shorter SHOOTER. Is this an improvement? Probably not, but somebody earned their salary for that month.

If you’re already a bestseller with a huge fan base, I guess you’re a more attractive prospect?

This is true, unless there is something about your books that makes them difficult to do as movies. Alexander McCall Smith’s “The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency” series has 14 excellent and popular novels, but this is not the kind of thing that you can build a theme park around. Nobody in Hollywood knows where Botswana is. The Hollywood brain looks for familiar-but-different recipes because anything as “out there” as a lady detective in Botswana feels like a big risk.

Previously, one might have said an expensive period setting like Patrick O' Brian's Napoleonic naval warfare novels would make them too expensive to serialize as films but the worldwide success of G.R.R. Martin's "Game Of Thrones" series shows that Hollywood will risk the money if the fan-base is there. Still, the truth is it's never very hard to get Hollywood producers to look at HIGHLY POPULAR novels and series. The authors of these works have calls on their answering machines all the time from producers curious about rights.

Some very smart writers have scant adaptations of their work (Harlan Coben, Dean Koontz, Joe Lansdale) because they don't want to sell the rights to some knucklehead who’ll do a terrible job of making the movie. Michael Crichton worked with some of most talented people in Hollywood (Spielberg). Stephen King has worked with some very able adaptors and also some terrible ones. Don't get into a situation like Jim Butcher and have a bad adaptation of your major series stumble and fail. It’s very hard to re-ignite passion for something already filmed and flopped.

Let’s say you do have a studio interested in adapting your work for the screen. Is this the time to seek an agent specialised in selling film rights?

Absolutely. You need an agent and (better) a lawyer very familiar with entertainment law or you will be taken advantage of. You will be told you are being offered the best deal ever only later to find out that even your own agent was not acting in your ultimate best interests. Because your ICM agent is wetting-their-pants eager to make a deal because that’s his (or her) job and it makes them look good next Monday at the all-agency meeting and they will be cheered and praised for packaging a sale. You, on the other hand, will have to live for the rest of your life with whatever the deal did to your copyright on the intellectual property. For clarity on this I attach one paragraph from the middle of a nine-page “option purchase” agreement I was asked to sign. It was authored by a top Hollywood lawyer:

If Producer exercises the Option, Producer shall own all right, title and interest of every kind or nature in and to the Book and the characters, plots, themes and titles therein, including but not limited to, all motion picture, television and customary allied rights in and to the Book (collectively, the “Rights”). Such Rights shall include without limitation the right to develop, produce, broadcast, transmit, reproduce, exhibit and/or exploit the Picture and/or any other derivative works based on the Book in all media and by any means, whether now known or hereafter developed, including theatrical, video/DVD, soundtrack, remake, sequel and merchandizing rights, and all copyrights therein and all renewals and extensions thereof.

Now that is business-as-usual, and you might willingly sign a thing like that when someone is waving a six-figure check at you. And your agent says it’s “industry standard.” But what a lawyer will tell you is they just bought the rights to all your characters. And you don’t own them any more. So if you felt like writing a sequel or a series or anything – tough luck. You are at their mercy. In the old days, producers just wanted to pay you for the right to film your book. Period. Now, they want to chain and handcuff you if you let them. What would be proper to sign is a limited agreement like this:

Producer shall own all motion picture rights in and to the Book (Such Rights shall include without limitation the right to develop, produce, broadcast, transmit, reproduce, exhibit and/or exploit the Picture based on the Book including theatrical, video/DVD, remake and film merchandizing rights.) 
Do you have any other tips you are willing to share which might help other indie authors navigate the movie business?

Focus on writing, and write a lot. Your best idea may come when you least expect it. One of the truest things is something I heard from Terry Rossio. Terry is a very successful, smart writer who has an overlooked but terrific blog about his experiences in Hollywood and you can read him at What he says is this: the number one problem for most writers in Hollywood is “lack of a good concept.” This is absolutely true. And I would extend it to include writers in general. Many writers spend years trying to craft the best possible version of a book that is – at core -- an uninteresting idea, no matter how well done. One of the most overlooked skills a writer needs to develop is the ability to tell the difference between a good idea and a weaker idea. Pick the good one to invest your time in.

Thousands of people are passing screenplays, books, and comic books around Hollywood. What you don’t see are many good original ideas that would also make a good movie. If your novel can pass that test of “good idea, and it would make a good movie,” then it’s likely your novel will be discovered by Hollywood. It may not happen overnight. It might take a decade. Or two. But if your novel would make a great movie, there’s a decent chance someone will become interested in making it, as long as your manuscript isn’t hidden in your sock drawer.
You can find Walt at his website:

Walt Morton’s latest novel is AMERICAN GHOUL

It would make a great movie. 

By JJ Marshauthor, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and first drafts.


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