Almost six months ago, How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack
was released into the wild. It has been an interesting, and sometimes
incredible, six months. It’s my intention to do a series of posts of
behind-the-scenes stuff relating to the book’s sale and release, in an
effort to illuminate what you can expect when it happens to you. This is Part 3. Today I want to talk about the process of how film rights are sold.
How does a book become a movie?
That is a long and complicated process. I will try and explain some of the process here, using what I have gone through in the past six months.
And just to be clear: Have the film rights to Gnomes been sold?
Not yet. We are deep in the process. Wish us luck.
How does the book-to-film process begin?
Your literary agent will likely hook up with a co-agent to help broker the deal. See, a literary agent is an expert in selling books, but 99% of them are not experts in selling to Hollywood. So an agent teams up with a co-agent (usually based in LA) who specializes in book-to-film work. They work together to move the deal forward.
In September 2010, I was notified by my agent (Sorche Fairbank) that Luke Sandler at Gotham Group would be our book-to-film agent. Luke & I spoke on the phone, and he is very skilled and nice.
So a writer needs two agents for a deal? Does that cost more?
Yes. Instead of a 15% commission, it’s now 20%, which is then split between the two agents.
After a co-agent is onboard, what happens next?
The co-agent will begin sending the book and information about it out to Hollywood producers, who work with film studios of all sizes. Producers are the ones who work behind the scenes to make sure a movie gets made. They bring all the players together and oversee money. If a producer is interested in a project, they may buy the rights outright, but more often than not, they will try to get a script or treatment written then assemble a package around it.
The first step to getting a movie made is getting a screenwriter to take a crack at writing the script adaptation of your work. The producer sets this up and foots the bill, if there is one. The screenwriter may write the entire script, or they just may write a loose outline or a treatment, either of which simply paint a picture of what they had in mind. Once the writer has provided something, the producer can use that as bait to attach actors and form a package.
What is a package?
It’s when you attach “talent” (writer, director, actors) to a script to make the project more attractive to a large studio. For example, if an actor likes a script, they will attach themselves to it. Meaning, they sign to be part of the project if the money is footed by a production company.
If a studio is interested in the film rights to your work, do they buy the rights outright?
Not typically. They option your work.
What is an option?
It costs studios a heck of a lot to buy film rights to a project. Also: Probably only 1 out of every 50 books that a studio shows interest in ever comes to the big screen. That means a studio is spending 50 lump sums of money to acquire the rights to book properties, but only 1 of each 50 will ever hit the big screen and give a studio a chance to make their money back. Thus, the option is what we deal with now.
When a studio options your book, it essentially means they are saying this: “Hi. We like your book. We want to buy the rights for it, but only for a set period of time—say, 18 months. In exchange, we’ll give you a small amount of money. In those 18 months, we will try to get a viable script and big actors attached to the project. If at the end of the 18 months we have enough talent attached to make a movie, we will buy the film rights outright and pay you a bunch more. But if your book seems like one of the 98% that just isn’t coming together as hoped, then our option has expired, the rights revert back to you, and you can keep that money we gave you.”
So give me the short version. If your book is optioned, what happens?
Hopefully you get some money. The studio that bought it gets to work on a package. You may be called for guidance but may not be. So take the money and spend it! You get to keep it no matter what.
Can a book be optioned more than once?
You bet. When the timeframe runs out (again, this is usually 12-18 months), the studio that optioned it may simply option it again (more money!) and continue working on their package. Or the rights will revert back to you and your two agents will immediately try to sell the rights elsewhere in hopes of 1) another paycheck, and 2) finding the right combination of people that actually sees the movie come to life.
Honestly, how much does all this involve the writer?
From what I’ve seen, not much. Your agents are doing most of the work. They keep you posted.
Can you write the screenplay adaptation of your own work?
Writing a screenplay is nothing like writing something else. Some novelists can make the jump easily; others can’t. Plus, authors are often too “close” to their own work to decide what large amounts of information in the book needs to be cut so that the movie can be a quick two hours. So, to answer the question: You can certainly bring it up and offer your services. You may get a crack at it and get paid. They may invite you to write it but not offer money, to see what you come up with. Or they might just say, “Thanks, but we already have several writers in mind.”
When would you ever sell all film rights to your book — not just an option?
If you’re very, very lucky and a bidding war ensues, you could sell the film rights in whole immediately. But options are way more common, and a studio will not buy all film rights until production on the film begins and the cameras roll. But if that does happen, there could be a hefty paycheck involved — good news for writers.
What if you’re unagented and think your book is a movie and a screenplay? Should you write both and query both NYC and LA at the same time?
You can, though that may not be the best idea. Keep in mind that for every 50 scripts and books Hollywood pays money to secure the rights to, they only produce perhaps 1. So consider this scenario: You write a screenplay and sell it for $80,000. But then you know it has a minute chance of ever seeing the light of day — and they own all rights. Are you OK with never seeing your work reach others? My advice is to write the book. See the book come out and be available to all. THEN, watch your agents work together to see it in another incarnation: film.
Found this picture on Twitter. It’s two
dudes I don’t know. But they are
Media requests & interviews: If you would like a free review copy of Gnomes
for an interview or roundup or any kind of mention, please contact me
at literaryagent(at)fwmedia.com(dot)com and I will send your information
to my publicist. Thanks!
More Gnome news: To see all the news & reviews & coverage of my book, click on “My Writing Life” at the end of this post.