Summing Up

Movies based on books, books derived from films (called novelizations), and of course both original screenplays and adapted screenplays offer opportunities for income and fame only dreamed of by most writers. This is good news for book authors willing to write in a cinematic style that appeals to Hollywood decision-makers, but for aspiring screenwriters, the prospects are less bright. Each year, studios, producers, directors, stars—even established screenwriters—option the film rights to more books than they do for original screenplays.

As an author, you can increase your book’s film potential by emphasizing its visual interest, creating characters that make good star vehicles, and understanding that despite great innovations in film-making, movies are still about good stories, engaging characters, well-constructed plots and storylines, and a satisfying emotional payoff.

Obviously, a film adaptation or original screenplay should accomplish these same things—provided you think of your story as moving pictures, not just dialog or narration—and can hold an audience’s uninterrupted attention for a couple of hours.

Jay Wurts Writer and Editor
About Jay Wurts Writer and Editor

Professional Services: Screenplays

Like many authors, you may feel your project is “perfect for the movies.” Some authors are so convinced their story must be told by Hollywood, they conceive it first as an original screenplay or its abbreviated cousin, the film treatment. Unfortunately, this usually ends in disappointment.

Even seasoned screenwriters have trouble selling original work and each year far more books than scripts are optioned by Hollywood. Why? Because movies are an expensive, risky business. If your story has already been published as a book, received good reviews, and readers (not to mention sub-rights buyers) have voted for it with their dollars, producers feel better about risking their money. As one experienced agent said, “If you really want to see your story on the big screen, first publish it as a book”—and he was right.

The Book-to-Film Process
Film companies, producers, major stars and directors scour thousands of books each year searching for those that will make good films. This process can be exhaustive, with paid readers analyzing a book’s characters, plot, and storyline on detailed forms that assess the work’s appeal. We can increase your book’s score with these reviewers by writing “playable” dialog, depicting characters that make good vehicles for actors, and ensuring that the story is told in the tight, economical way that is hallmark of good screenplays.

But even if your book is optioned for the movies, its chance of it making it to the screen are small. After all, an “option” contract is your agreement to sell the film rights, not a promise to make the film. In exchange for a nominal fee, it gives the buyer a specific time (usually one or two years) to seek funding and obtain the commitment of actors, a director, and a screenwriter. Sometimes, this process takes even longer and the option is renewed. More often, a project that can’t attract resources is dropped.

However, if the option is exercised, you’ll enjoy a healthy payday—both from the so-called pickup price for the work and the increased book sales that result from a movie tie-in. In addition, the film rights contract can include provisions for extra author income, such as a fee for consulting on the set to a “budget bonus” escalator that increases the purchase price as production cost gets bigger. Add that to the knowledge that more people will likely see your story the week the movie opens than will ever read the book—plus the thrill of seeing your name on the opening credits!—and you’ll know why selling a book to Hollywood has become a grail for many authors.

The Film-to-Book Process
Film makers naturally try to maximize their return from a movie—not just in ticket sales but from derivative products like DVDs, calendars and books. Hollywood calls any book derived from a film or screenplay a novelization, even though the subject may be nonfiction. A good novelization conveys the spirit and substance of the film, but may go beyond it to make a cinematic story more literary. Naturally, a film adapted from a book requires no novelization, though many big-budget movies these days are accompanied by a “making of” book that, in addition to summarizing the story, tells the story of the film.

Novelizations are looked down upon by many agents and editors, but such snobbery is misplaced. True, most of the creative work that goes into a film is complete by the time novelization begins, but a good novelization not only benefits from this prior effort, it gains more readers from the movie’s publicity, and that can lead to a profitable franchise. Savvy film-makers looking for writers to novelize their work know that it pays to begin their search at the top—with experienced authors—rather than relegating such tasks to a novice.

Original Screenplays
If you’re willing to ignore the odds and persevere with your movie concept, it’s still possible to option and sell an original script—although first-timers who manage this feat will likely see their work rewritten (sometimes unrecognizably) by a veteran screenwriter employed by the producer to reassure investors and placate the on-screen talent. However, the more screenplays you write and the better you get at it—showing them to industry professionals, learning to work in a collegial environment, and putting up with the endless revisions that are essential to script development—the better your chances of breaking into this most exclusive club.

For more information about screenplay development and novelizations, please go to the Classes & Workshops, For Agents & Publishers, and Contact pages of this web site.

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