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.
Hollywood 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.