Have you ever been curious about what it takes to get your novel or series turned into a movie or film franchise? In today's guest post, Robert Blake Whitehill, author of the Ben Blackshaw series, sheds some light on his experiences in getting his novels optioned.
As an award-winning screenwriter, I always hoped my Ben Blackshaw series of novels, including DEADRISE, NITRO EXPRESS, and TAP RACK BANG, might be considered for adaptation into feature films. You might have similar ambitions for your own novel or series. Ambition is the seed of accomplishment, but getting ahead of yourself, imagining the smell of the popcorn at the premiere—or worse, memorizing witty remarks and the list of all the Little People you’d like to thank after due homage is paid to the Academy—is only fun for a minute. There are other matters to attend to first.
One’s core responsibility, duty, and calling as a novelist are to offer great writing to your audience. Readers, at home or in Hollywood, must really enjoy the work. They invest seven to twelve hours of their lives in a book of average length. Thirty to fifty thousand of every reader’s heartbeats become yours. You had best not waste their time with offal.
That means writing and rewriting, and includes working with the best editors you can find. I had the privilege of working with Richard Marek, who discovered and shaped Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne series into the blockbuster franchise we all know today.
Once your book is proven to resonate loud, hard, and strong with readers, with solid sales and resounding reviews, it is possible that Hollywood might call, but perhaps not right away.
Case in point: The Princess Bride novel was published thirteen years before production of the film began. Studios balked during that period even though The Princess Bride’s author was also an Academy Award-winning screenwriter with a terrific adapted script under his arm. For a while, Hollywood thought The Princess Bride simply could not be made. Rob Reiner and Norman Lear thought differently and never wavered.
Basics of the Business
For those with dreams of seeing their books up on the silver screen, a call from Hollywood out of the blue is rare. It is far more likely that an author and his or her team will need to help studio development executives or independent film makers discover the property.
I must first admit that all the films I personally picked up at Centerseat when I was Vice President of Independent Film Acquisitions were finished works, and absolutely none had been adapted from any kind of narrative prose or poetry. We know this is not always the case. Yet, from Gone with the Wind to Moby-Dick to The Guns of Navarone to The Princess Bride, books are adapted into film with unvaried frequency, though with varied success.
Agents can help with this strange form of business-to-business marketing. Many agencies represent screenwriters as well as authors, and packaging a book from its stable of authors with their credited screenwriters nets the agency more in commissions.
You can also zero-in on film makers with a track record of crafting movies that are like your book. The Hollywood Creative Directory lists more than 11,000 potential partners, and it only takes one to start the gears of the film industry grinding for you.
My hard-working public relations team at Shelton Interactive has really helped The Ben Blackshaw Series find its audience among readers. They introduced me to some notable film makers, who were willing to read DEADRISE when it first came out. I got some great advice from these Hollywood moguls about possible ideas for the scope of the series. Though an option did not result at this point, you will soon see I was wiser and better armed when I took the series, with its additional titles and awards, out again later. Quick piece of advice: Never look at money paid to great partners as a fee. It’s always tuition.
Rob Reiner and Norman Lear are household names and perhaps seem daunting to approach. Must you reach that deeply into the A-List to get an option on your book’s film rights? Perhaps not. Do not dismiss less-experienced producers who are passionate about your work. Passion, and even zeal, in combination with canny movie-making chops will carry a project through to a premiere despite the great odds arrayed against the novelist. Remember, the sad truth is that saying no is always the safest tack for a film maker. Saying yes involves the risk of one’s industry reputation, not to mention the potential loss of vast resources. A film needs thousands of yeses along the way. Great work paired with a passionate champion will keep the yeses coming. This approach certainly worked for me, as you will see here.
Larger studios have economies of scale working in their favor, and also in your favor as a writer. They can amortize the risk of one poorly performing movie across a broader slate including other films which might become moderate or breakout successes. If you write a series, you can offer (and a studio can afford) multiple titles at an attractive discount, which could be viewed by studios and savvy independents as a smaller slate-within-a-slate, also known as a franchise. With book adaptations, you must help any potential partner envision a film before there is even a screenplay.
From Book Series to Film Franchise
As my dear friend, creative consultant, and networking guru Joanne Zippel asserts, writers can mine interested readers with film-making connections from among their own contacts. The way she puts it, “Most people have better networks than they realize. You start by looking beyond the obvious—doing the right research to connect the dots between your work and the people most likely to share your creative aesthetic.”
On Joanne’s advice, I began reaching out to every film industry professional I knew. If they agreed to read something, I hit them right away with copies of The Ben Blackshaw Series books. I was extremely fortunate—the process did not take long. Through LinkedIn, I quickly reconnected with a classmate from Haverford College named Stephanie Bell. Like me, she had graduated with plans of acting. Today, she is a producing partner at HatLine Productions.
Thank goodness Stephanie Bell runs a lean shop. She and her producing partners, Michael Lipoma, and Tamra Teig, tend to check out their carefully vetted list of submissions to HatLine personally, without first getting recommendations through coverage from a development staff of readers.
Stephanie writes, “I’ve always been an avid reader (hence my BA in English Lit) and when I had the opportunity to read Robert’s first novel, DEADRISE, he was fortunate to have caught me at a place when I had time to read it (which these days is not a lot!). I was happy to do so, not only because he is a fellow Haverfordian, but because I knew his background and skills, and because he was generous to me when I reached out for help; I wanted to reciprocate.”
So encouraging of novelists, Stephanie goes on to say, “There is an incredible wealth of both fiction and nonfiction literature available today by both publishing houses and independently published authors, which makes the job for a producer much easier but also harder! I am always looking for fascinating stories, and the ability to connect to authors so quickly is fantastic. What is exciting to me is that there are so many amazing stories waiting to be discovered and brought to life on the big screen.”
Stephanie’s response to DEADRISE could not have made me happier. She writes, “I couldn’t put DEADRISE down, and the minute I finished, I called Robert and said, ‘I want to make this movie with you.’”
On Stephanie’s immediate recommendation, fellow HatLine producer Michael Lipoma said he would read the second title in The Ben Blackshaw Series, NITRO EXPRESS. Thank goodness, he agreed with Stephanie’s assessment of the works, saying, “NITRO EXPRESS is visceral and visual, and we at HatLine Productions couldn’t be more delighted to help Ben Blackshaw assume his rightful place alongside Jason Bourne and James Bond!”
Bond? Bourne? Wow! You can imagine this was incredibly exciting for me to hear. The crucial yeses were starting to become real for Ben Blackshaw.
That is when Stephanie asked to see the third book in The Ben Blackshaw Series, TAP RACK BANG. I was a moron. I hesitated. At the time, TAP RACK BANG was still in manuscript form. It was as yet unpublished, so no one else had read this book, meaning there were still no rave reviews to bolster the decision-making process at HatLine Productions. Taking a leap of faith, I sent the manuscript and found that Stephanie did not need reviews. As I said, she makes her own decisions based on her personal assessments.
She has written, “In TAP RACK BANG, Whitehill weaves together intricate story lines that will leave you reeling; another brilliant Ben Blackshaw adventure!”
Right after reading TAP RACK BANG, she picked up the phone again, and said, “I want to make the entire series with you—will you have me?!” As she puts it, “The friendship and partnership were born!”
After that call, negotiations began, and yes, today we are in business together. My friends at HatLine share my vision for The Ben Blackshaw Series. In our business and creative meetings I relish how we always speak with one another from a position of utmost respect.
One of the many happy terms of my agreement with HatLine includes that I will adapt the novels into screenplays myself. That prospect is wonderful! The road ahead will be long, but all the principals involved are marathon runners, not sprinters, and we will see it through. Then, you bet we will make decisions about popcorn at the premiere. We will have earned that much.
For anyone with further questions about this process, or anything else to do with writing, you’re welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will respond.
You can learn more about Ben Blackshaw, the Chesapeake Bay region, and me at www.robertblakewhitehill.com.
Do good work. Market it hard. Mine your contacts. Manage your expectations. Keep writing.