Blogger: Rachelle Gardner
If you’ve written a novel or memoir, chances are you’ve dreamed of it becoming a movie. It’s so visual, you think. So dramatic! It’s even better than [insert name of box office hit].
Hey, I agree with you! Plenty of books could make great movies, if only someone were interested in making a movie out of them.
So today I’ll shed a little light on film rights. Keep in mind that agents have different ways of handling things, and there is no clear path to Hollywood, but these are some basics.
Hollywood Film Agent On Board
Literary agents don’t typically sell directly to Hollywood — we sell to publishers. So the best way to get our movie rights optioned or sold is to partner with a film agent. Large literary agencies have film departments whose full-time job is creating and maintaining relationships with Hollywood agencies, and trying to get film agents interested in their authors’ books. But most writers aren’t repped by these larger agencies; that means your agent, in addition to all the work of selling books to publishers, may be simultaneously pitching books to film agents.
If you don’t have a film agent to get your book considered in Hollywood, another path to the movies is to have a personal connection with a producer, actor, or director who has the power to get a movie made and is also interested in your book.
How does it work?
Your literary agent shops your manuscript to film agents exactly the same way we shop it to publishers. If our pitch catches their attention, they may enter into a dialogue about it. If not, they’ll just quickly say “no” or they won’t respond.
If we DO get a film agent on board, it’s a great first step but still doesn’t mean much. Now the film agent has to shop your manuscript amongst film producers, directors, and actors, trying to get someone interested. Maybe somebody will want to option the rights, maybe not.
What are the odds?
I’m not sure of percentages, but obviously, thousands of books are published by the major houses each year, and only a tiny fraction are ever optioned for film. (Less than 1%, I’d guess.) Of properties whose film rights are optioned, still less than 1% of those go on to be made into films. Of those that DO end up as movies, it typically takes a long time. Five to ten years would be considered normal.
What’s an option?
An option gives a production company the exclusive right to begin developing your manuscript into a film. They may have a writer start working on the screenplay; they may begin trying to attach other elements like directors and actors. Or they may sit on it and do nothing.
An option is always for a limited time, usually 12 to 18 months. Normally nothing happens in that short period of time, so options are usually renewed, or else the production company loses interest and drops the option. Sometimes your best bet of making some extra money on your book is to get it optioned with repeated renewals; you may never see it made into a movie but you’ll at least get a check each time the option is renewed. How much? The numbers vary widely, usually from about $1000 and up, for a one-year option.
Will my agent shop MY book to Hollywood agents?
Here’s the hard part. Because the odds are against us selling the film rights in most cases, we have to make careful choices about how to spend our time. We have to see something compelling that makes us believe there’s a good chance your book will translate well to film or TV. Some things that make it worthwhile for us to be more aggressive in shopping your book to film agents:
→ Your book was sold to a major publishing house at auction for a lot of money
→ Your book is a NYT bestseller
→ Your book is garnering extremely positive (starred) reviews from major outlets
→ Your book has some special unique element that makes us think it might have a chance of getting Hollywood’s attention
Keep in mind your literary agent already believes in you and your book. They think your book is great—that’s why they took it on. They’ve sold it to a publisher. So don’t take it personally if they aren’t spending a lot of time aggressively trying to get your movie rights optioned. It doesn’t mean they don’t believe in your book, it simply means that the odds are high against getting a movie option, and so your agent’s time is better spent elsewhere.
If your book was sold to a smaller publisher, including most Christian publishers, and it’s a modest success (fewer than, say, 50,000 copies sold), then optioning the film rights is highly unlikely and it doesn’t make sense for your agent to actively work for a film deal.
Sure, there are movies that get made from smaller books, but those usually happen because of a personal connection. A producer or a film scout happened to find the book somehow, and they spent years championing it.
My agent says a couple of production companies have inquired about film rights—how excited should I be?
It’s a great first step! And you can be proud that your book has gotten some attention. But in most cases, the inquiry doesn’t go any further. No counting chickens or looking at mansions on Yahoo Real Estate.
If the film rights are eventually sold and the movie is made, how much money can I make?
A typical payment for the author would be something like 2% of the movie’s overall budget. If your book is being made into (for example) an ABC Family Christmas movie with a $2 million budget, your paycheck would be $40,000. This is strictly hypothetical—every situation is different.
How do the agent commissions work?
Typically the two agents (literary and film) share in commissions but the numbers vary. Sometimes both agents get 10% of any film options or deals, meaning the author is paying a 20% commission. Sometimes the author pays a 30% commission if there are three agents involved, or if both agents take 15%.
Any more questions? I’ll either answer in the comments or an additional post.
Wondering how movie rights work for authors? Agent @RachelleGardner explains. Click to Tweet.
If you’ve dreamed of having your book made into a movie, this post is for you. Click to Tweet.