Think You Oughta Be in Pictures?

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

Let’s start with this assumption: if you’ve written a novel or memoir, chances are you’ve dreamed of it becoming a movie. Admit it! It’s visual… it’s dramatic… the story is even better than [insert name of box office hit].

And you may be right! Plenty of books could make great movies, if only someone were interested in making a movie out of them.

So today I’d like to shed a little light on film rights. Keep in mind that different agents have different ways of handling things, and there is no clear path to Hollywood, but these are some basics.

Movie reelHollywood Film Agent Required

Literary agents don’t typically sell in Hollywood. (We sell to publishers.) So we get our movie rights optioned or sold by partnering 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 many writers aren’t repped by these larger agencies; that means your agent, in addition selling books to publishers, may be simultaneously pitching books to film agents.

Without a film agent, the only other path to the movies is if you 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?

If your literary agent decides to shop your manuscript to film agents, it is done the same way we shop it to publishers. We have our list of contacts. We email them pitches for the books we think are saleable in Hollywood. Sometimes we have meetings when we’re in L.A. Just like when you send your queries out to literary agents, these film agents can choose to respond or not. If it catches their attention and looks interesting to them, 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 something will come of it, 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. Of properties that are optioned, still a tiny percentage 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 or TV series. 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 often renewed, sometimes again and again and again, 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. (As far as your next question, “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 many cases, we have to make careful choices about which books to pitch. 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 might possibly make it worthwhile for us to shop your book’s movie rights:

? Your book was sold to a major publishing house at auction for a lot of money
? Your book is a major NYT bestseller
? Your book is garnering extremely positive reviews from major outlets
? Your book has some special unique element that makes us think it just might have a chance of getting Hollywood’s attention

Even if the book fits one or more of criteria, Hollywood is generally only interested if the book has impressively high sales.

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 time aggressively trying to get your movie rights optioned. The odds are high against getting a movie option, and even when it happens, the money can be insignificant.

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 a movie option is highly unlikely.

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. It’s not unusual for us to get contacted by scouts for film agents and production companies, but most of the inquiries don’t go anywhere.

If my book gets optioned, can I write the screenplay?

Writing a screenplay is a different art than writing a book. Even if you’ve written screenplays before, the chance is slim that a producer would hire you to write your own screenplay, so this is probably not something to set your sights on. It’s something that can be considered when the time comes, but I don’t recommend you dream about a film deal in which you’re attached as the screenwriter.

Will my agent try to sell my book to Hollywood before even getting a publishing deal?

If you’re a bestselling author with a track record, especially if movies have already been made from your books, then yes. If you’re a newer author, either unpubbed or published with modest sales, then probably not. But it’s up to your agent—if she thinks it warrants exposure to Hollywood prior to a publishing deal, then that’s what will happen. And if by some chance the film rights are sold before the publishing rights, or you at least have an option from a production company, then that can sometimes help get a good publishing deal. However, everyone knows that most “potential movies” die long before they reach the screen (in “development hell”), so no one’s holding their breath for the film release.

So… have you dreamed of having your book made into a movie or TV series? Have you ever been involved in a movie option?



Have you dreamed of your book becoming a movie? @RachelleGardner explains the process. Click to Tweet.

Only a tiny fraction of books are ever optioned for film/TV. What about yours? Click to Tweet.

Will your agent shop your book in Hollywood? Click to Tweet.




31 Responses

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  1. Thanks for this great article, Rachelle. Very interesting and helpful information, as I’d wondered what goes into getting a book optioned.
    So if you sell direct to a publisher, is your book less likely to be exposed to the film industry because you don’t have an agent shopping the rights around? (unless you sell a heap of books and it gets exposure that way).

  2. Just remember what Pauline Kael said. “Hollywood is the only town where you can die of encouragement.”

  3. Lisa says:

    When I write I do imagine my stories in movie form 🙂 It’s fun to learn about how it all works.

    The master of this might be Nicolas Sparks. I think The Last Song was optioned before he wrote the manuscript. I can’t think of a movie I liked more than the book though.

    • I do the same thing Lisa. Doing this can help us integrate the five senses into our scenes, as well as the important addition of lighting and how it affects the mood of the story.

  4. I confess I’m one of those who isn’t interested much in my books becoming movies. While I love a good movie, the book is just about always better.

    What CF books have been made into movies? Anyone know? I came up with Left Behind, Lynn Austin’s Hidden Places, Angela Hunt’s The Note, Francine Rivers’ The Last Sin Eater and an Amish book whose title I can’t remember. I’m sure there’s been a few more.

    • Jan Thompson says:

      Don’t know others besides what you listed, but I can see that CF-to-movie market is small. Since it costs a lot of make a movie, they need a bigger audience to justify the investments. Might be why we see a lot of CF-to-DVDs instead.

      There are scripts written by Christian indie companies that were made into movies first, and then someone wrote novels based on the movies instead of the other way around. For example Courageous by the same filmmakers as Facing the Giants and Fireproof.

      It would be nice to see CF adaptations in the theaters. I can think of a few genres that would make good movies — inspirational regencies, colonial fiction, 1940s or 1920s period dramas.

      As far as the historical fiction I read, I think that Laura Frantz’s Colonel’s Lady, Joanne Biscof’s Be Still My Soul, and Julie Klassen’s The Tutor’s Daughter would make interesting movies. I would definitely go see them on the big screen on opening nights. Wonder if their agents are looking into those possibilities.


  5. I’ll admit I haven’t truly dreamed of my book becoming a movie. So many times the movie adaptations are not at all like the book. But it’s always interesting to learn how deals get made. Thanks, Rachelle.

  6. Sarah Thomas says:

    What a fun post! I don’t really envision making it big in Hollywood, but it’s fun to read about the process.

    Have any B&S books been made into movies?

  7. Jeanne T says:

    This was very insightful. 🙂 I’ve never even considered that my stories my be “Hollywood ready.” Like Lisa mentioned above, my stories play in my mind in movie form.

    Thanks for sharing about the process, Rachelle. I’ve always been curious.

  8. Elissa says:

    I have no doubt whatsoever that my book could not become a good movie, so it’s not something I really think about. My biggest dreams involve simply getting it published and having it garner at least modest success.

  9. Heather says:

    Do television rights operate much the same as film rights? I’m thinking Charlaine Harris, “Dead until Dark” picked up by HBO.

  10. I think my novel board on Pinterest is the closest I will come to a movie reel.

  11. Laurie Evans says:

    Very interesting. I’ve always wondered how this works.

  12. Terrance Leon Austin says:

    Interesting! Thanks Rachelle.

  13. Yvette Carol says:

    Great post, thanks! When I was writing my WIP, I “saw” it as a movie too, the same way other responders here have said. In fact, being a New Zealander, I’ve always cherished the idea that my books would gain the attention of our kiwi director, Peter Jackson! One can only hope 🙂

  14. Bonnie Doran says:

    As an author with a debut novel coming soon, of course I dream of a movie. First I have to get those sales.

  15. I often think I should focus on screenplays rather than novels. My dialog driven style leans towards such a switch. Besides, I wrote sketches long before books and those were a hit with traveling comedy groups. Finding a book agent is near impossible. How difficult is finding a script agent?

  16. Sue Harrison says:

    Um, Dream yes. But only a minor dream. I did have one of my books sell dramatic rights for radio and stage in Japan and Norway. That was fun. I do have a friend who had her movie rights optioned for 3 years and big bucks, but nothing came of it. That was a taste of reality for me and very disappointing for her.

  17. Erich Penhoff says:

    Like always a very informative blog!We think about seeing the story on the Marquee, somewhere, I am sure must of us do. But many dream of the monetary success, as do many dream of winning the Powerball lottery. But this also applies to having their book published with a huge advance and a millon copies sold! How about just writing for posterity, your childrens children or down the line. Maybe you can avoid a cauldron of disappointments, and yes they boil at times!

  18. Thank you for the very informative blog, Rachelle. Lots of needed facts to consider.
    I appreciate the realistic heads-up.

  19. Heather Frey Blanton says:

    There are so many new networks popping up now and success is defined by smaller numbers. I wonder (and hope) that maybe the odds get better for thos e of us dreaming about a made-for-TV movie.

  20. Before I started writing books, I was an aspiring screenwriter living in Hollywood. I made a nice living for a while on options alone! But seeing something go from paper to screen is a long and arduous process … with a lot of curve balls. This blog post is really valuable because it’s in-your-face truth about what you can expect. Does it make me stop hoping? Absolutely not! Thank the Lord I have an agent like Rachelle who understands and encourages and still tells it like it is.

  21. Cortez Law III says:

    I’m currently adapting a pair of my books into screenplays that I believe have cinematic potential. It simply represents another avenue, albeit a difficult one, to get my stories before an audience. As Rachelle stated, a sale of a property in one of the mediums can influence a sale in the other one.

    For the better part of a decade, this was my goal and yes to PJ, it can be just as near to impossible to get a script agent as well. The same perseverance needed for the publishing world is no less so than the film/TV world. If anything breaks with these projects, I’ll certainly have some story to tell.

    Everyone keep positive, hone your craft and stay connected to insightful posts from knowledgeable insiders like Rachelle Gardner or other Books & Such Agency posts. Ladies and gentlemen, you just never know how that big break will manifest itself.

  22. Lisa says:

    I was contacted by a TV production company who is writing a sitcom and would like it based on my NF book. I had a lot of questions about this so I contacted my lit agent who, in turn, sent a talent agent my way. We discussed the proposed series, as well as another reality TV show inquiry, and I don’t expect either one to go anywhere. The sitcom producer explained the entire process and that the odds are highly against a show ever being sold to a network, but at least my book is in a high-interest niche, so maybe someday… ;o)

  23. This posting really raised my ears. My life has been very cinematic. (Not that I’m bragging) I’m hoping my biography( based on my life) will be made into a movie someday.

    I’m taking the initiative to write the screenplay myself. I already have the page numbers done.

    The working title is:”A Dude and His Dog”.

    I just hope it’s filmed in 3D. I think those goofy looking glasses look really good on me.

  24. Dan Erickson says:

    I recently had an independent film producer who has won an award at a major film festival and produced a movie with a cutting edge company contact me to set up a time to talk. That’s as far as it went so far. Although I do believe my story has the potential to be a movie, I have no delusions of blockbuster status, and I’m in no hurry for it to happen. I believe it may happen in time, but I can wait.

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