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February 25, 2009

Book Adaptations

On my personal blog, I wrote a post called How to Turn a Book Into a Movie culled from my experience as both a screenwriter and a story analyst specializing in book adaptations. Recently a reader wrote in with some additional questions and I thought I'd answer them here.

Joe writes:

I am doing some research on the secondary markets available to book publishing companies for a school project. One area is the opportunity to turn books into movies. I have been doing some research on the internet and am having trouble finding the answers to some key questions. I was hoping you may be able to shed some light on the subject. 1. How do movie companies obtain the rights to a book?

In order for a production company, producer, studio, director, screenwriter, actor or anyone else to turn a book into a movie, they must obtain the rights. These rights are held by either the publisher or the author. In the case of high-profile author whose books have proven successful in adaptation (think Stephen King or John Grisham), a special agent will shop the rights around in much the same way that a hot script would be shopped. Often this will be done before the book is even published. In some cases publishers even have their own film arms to develop projects in house, attaching producers or other talents themselves in order to create a more attractive package.

However, there are a lot of books out there, and with the book agents busy on the hot properties many publishers must wait for Hollywood to come to them. In the case of a first-time novelist writing in a less-commercial genre, it is not likely that a movie deal will come their way unless their book becomes a breakout hit in the manner of The Memory Keeper's Daughter.

Savvy wannabe writers and producers will scout books at places like Book Expo and other industry trade shows, snapping up books with potential before the bigger players have a chance to read them. In order to pull this off, you need to know what you're looking for, and have money to finance an option agreement with the author or publisher. You either want to find a passion project that you wouldn't mind spending years of your life trying to get made, or that zeitgeist-tapping underdog poised to supplant Gossip Girls. You're taking a gamble, but unlike in Vegas doing your homework will give you the advantage over the house.

2. How are these contracts structured (basically)? What are the key components of the contract? 3. Typically, what kind of payment structure is set in place? How are authors and publishers paid for the use of their work.

These two questions go hand-in-hand.

Typically, the producer/writer will take out what's called an "option" on the book, paying a small amount of money ranging anywhere from $0 to a few thousand dollars to take the book off the market for a predetermined period of time. During this time, the producer is the only person who has the option to purchase the rights to adapt the book. It's like a rent-to-own agreement.

Upon expiration, the author is under no obligation to renew the contract. It's not unheard of for books to be optioned by different producers and studios and still never get made. The purchase price will often be a sizable chunk, and once the movie rights are purchased they cannot be sold again by the author or publisher. They are owned by the producer who bought them.

Hope this helps, Joe!

Related Tags: Book Adaptation, Screenwriting


Dear Annie, I am a christian writer of pioneer type books. I've self published two books with Bookstand Publishing. Countless people have asked me if I've ever tried to contact companies who make Hallmark type movies. They don't realize how tough it is to get past the janitor. Any advice would be appreciated. Sincerely, Frances Bennett

Hi Frances:

Yes, it's really hard to get your foot in the door. Producers are inundated with requests and don't have time to read everything. If a story idea doesn't spark to them in a one paragraph pitch, they will pass without even reading it.

One idea is to get a subscription to Variety Online so that you can track industry trends. Right now, the market is really dry for the classic Hallmark Hall of Fame-type movies. They just aren't being made the way they once were. However, the pendulum can always shift. Being on top of Hollywood news can help you be savvy about where to pitch your ideas.

Your agent or publisher should be able/willing to help, or to find you an additional agent who deals only with movie contracts.

Good luck!