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John Robert Marlow is an award-winning novelist, screenwriter, and adaptation consultant. He recently closed a Hollywood script deal—an adaptation he wrote and will executive produce, with an estimated budget of $60 million. John's nonfiction articles have appeared in the Writer's Digest annuals, The Writer, Writers' Journal, Parade, The Huffington Post and elsewhere. John’s new book, Make Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood [http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1250001838/johnrobertmar-20 ], contains advice from authors, screenwriters, producers, directors and others whose movies have collectively earned over $50 billion and scores of Academy Award nominations. John blogs at makeyourstoryamovie.com http://makeyourstoryamovie.com/ .
Adapting Your Story for Hollywood:
Interview with John Robert Marlow
copyright © by John Robert Marlow
John Marlow: Why not? I don’t know anyone with a story to tell—book, play, narrative nonfiction, whatever—who doesn’t want to see that story on the screen. Books reach a lot of people. Movies reach more. People who don’t read, people who can’t read, people in other countries where your book hasn’t been translated—all of them watch movies.
The top-selling authors in the world all have heavy film involvement. Regardless of how successful they were before the films, the movies carried them to new heights. We—humans—started out telling stories around campfires. And movies are the global campfires of our time.
Right now, 8 of the top 10 highest-grossing movies of all time are adaptations. Sixteen of the top 20, and well over 50 of the top 100. This is what Hollywood wants. They understand the value of great source material, and they’re willing to pay for great adaptations.
One “average” sale to Hollywood can pay all your expenses for years; in some cases, a lifetime. You can’t say that of books or any other storytelling medium. So, do it to reach a global audience with your story, do it for the money—but do it.
Which pays better—selling the rights to your story, or selling a screenplay?
John Marlow: It depends on what you bring to the table. If your story is unknown or little-known and doesn’t exist as a book, play, comic or what-have-you, you’re going to have a tough time even pitching it because there’s nothing for buyers to look at and evaluate on the merits. You wind up trying to sell a concept, and “idea sales” are a very small fraction of what they once were.
The buyer has to do all the work, and that costs money they might otherwise pay to you, if you had a book or play etc. If they do pay you a significant amount, almost all of it is going to come if and when the movie gets made; you’ll likely get very little up front, because at this point, no one’s even sure the idea can be turned into a good script. There’s a high level of uncertainty, of risk—and that’s reflected in the up-front price.
At the other end of the scale, if you’ve got an extraordinarily successful property like, say, Harry Potter or Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey—you can pretty much write your own ticket, no screenplay required.
These properties come with a built-in audience of millions of people, so investors—and make no mistake; that’s how buyers think of themselves, as investors—they know that they’d have to screw things up pretty badly to not make a fortune on the adaptation. So they’re willing to pay for that certainty. In E.L. James’ case [50 Shades of Gray], they paid $9 million for the rights alone—without a screenplay.
Most of us dwell between those two extremes. And in that vast middle ground—and absent a very significant and proven fan base, or nationwide public awareness of your true-life story—you will almost invariably be paid far more for a screenplay than for mere “rights” to anything else. But keep in mind—you don’t have to be able to write a screenplay in order to sell one; you just have to own it. More on that in the book.
The average book advance these days hovers between $10,000-$20,000. The average selling price for a spec screenplay—by someone who’s never sold a screenplay before—is $300,000-$600,000. Two of the writers I interviewed for the book sold their first scripts for $3.2 and $5 million.
Those two sales are wild exceptions, of course. But the point, as Oscar-nominated producer Michael Nozik says in the book, is this: “Hollywood’s always looking for the easiest, quickest path to the end zone. Sometimes I’ll look at source material and think, this could be great, but I have no idea how to make it work as a movie, the story’s just too difficult to translate.
“Probably for the same reason, studios are less willing to consider source material than finished screenplays based on the same material, and they’re willing to spend more when they can see it well executed, because you’re helping them get to the end zone—a finished film—quicker.”
Again, it’s all about risk. Hollywood learned the hard way that a great book or other story doesn’t always translate into a great movie. If you can show them a great screenplay—there’s nothing to think about; it’s a touchdown pass. And from that, they can see the movie.
And so they pay more. Much more. They may also pay for a screenplay based on a book they’d never have bought at all, because they couldn’t see how it would translate.
And yet, even though the script sells for, from what you say, a minimum of 3,000% more than the book, you also say a book author can make more money from the book than the movie. Can you explain that?
John Marlow: Sure. The reason is simple: movies sell books. Two examples from my interviews: Alan Glynn’s first novel went out of print, despite good reviews from The New York Times and Publishers Weekly. Once the movie—Limitless—came out, it brought his book, in his words, “back from the dead.” Suddenly he’s watching a trailer for the movie during the Super Bowl.
Vikas Swarup’s Slumdog Millionaire, on the other hand, had been translated into 36 languages before the movie even came out—but, again in the author’s words, the movie “catapulted the book to a different level altogether.” It took the movie to get him on the New York Times Bestseller List.
The screenplay sells for a fixed amount; whether that’s $300,000 or $5 million. And whether the movie makes $2 or $2 billion, that’s all you’re ever going to get—plus bonuses and what-have-you. When you sell a book, you get a royalty for every copy sold.
If you sell an insane number of books, you make an insane amount of money. And what happens is this: a successful movie sells an insane number of books—causing you to ultimately make more money from the book than you ever will from the movie. Even though you would never have made that money from the book, without the movie.
There are all kinds of other synergies at play as well, which come in even before one or both have sold—but only if you have both book and screenplay.
In the book, you devote a good deal of space to movie contracts, which is something I haven’t seen in other books. What’s the thinking behind that?
John Marlow: Forewarned is fore-armed, was the thinking. Entertainment law is its own little world, and even attorneys who practice IP—intellectual property—for a living can easily wind up making huge mistakes. Things that couldn’t possibly happen in a book contract with a New York publisher. So what chance does a writer have?
One of the authors I interviewed—Vikas Swarup, who wrote Slumdog Millionaire—told me about another author who sold the movie rights to a book and wound up with very little money, and his onscreen credit sandwiched between the make-up artist and the caterer, pretty much.
Now, granted, that happened in India and not here—but you don’t want to wind up a poster-child for What Went Wrong. Studio attorneys work for the buyers, and their job is to get as much as they can for the studio; they’d be out of a job if they didn’t. And they’re very good at what they do. If you go up against them, alone—one way or another, you will lose.
So I interviewed some of the top entertainment attorneys working for people on the other side—writers, producers, directors, actors. These are heavy hitters; their firms represent people like James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, The Tolkien Estate and so on.
Frankly it was a way for me to learn more about the business side myself, while also allowing me to offer a sort of basic primer for readers on what you can and can’t get—and what’s negotiable—in a Hollywood contract. Because if you don’t inform yourself in this area, you’ll find yourself swimming with sharks in very deep waters
What are some of the high points?
John Marlow: Just to pick a few… You can usually keep the book and play and various other rights. You will never, ever get the right to injunctive relief—meaning you can’t hold up the movie while some legal issue is decided. You’ll likely keep sequel and prequel rights in non-movie formats; the buyer will likely be able to sequel and prequel the movie, but will not be allowed to base future movies on your future books unless they pay you again to do that. You’ll get paid for remakes and spinoffs. What’s negotiable? Some of the rights, the amounts you’re paid, your onscreen credits. This last is crucial; excepting only money, credits are the lifeblood of Hollywood. Some of them can be arbitrated away by the guilds and neither you nor the buyer have any say in the matter; others cannot.
Once you have a deal on the table, you need an entertainment attorney to negotiate. Not an agent or manager; they don’t know enough, and they tend to focus mostly on the money and the credits because they get a piece of one or both. And certainly not Uncle Elmer who went to law school. You must have an entertainment attorney, and a good one. Once you have a real deal on the table, you can find one to work on contingency, or you can shell out $600 an hour. Most people choose the percentage.
What if you don’t have a screenplay to sell?
John Marlow: There are a number of options presented at length in the book. Simply put, you can write one yourself, get someone more experienced to help you, or even have them write it for you. Whatever path you choose, having a great screenplay adaptation of your work is the best bet.
If for some reason that’s impossible, you can put together a “Pitch Pack.” It’s a bit like a book proposal, but for the screenplay adaptation. What you’re doing in this case is trying to sell the film rights and a detailed adaptation pitch.
And while that’s not ideal, it can be quite a bit better than saying, “Here’s my book, it would make a great movie.” Because now—with the pitch pack—you’re showing potential buyers how the book would be adapted. It may not get Hollywood to the end zone—but it does point the way. And in some cases, that might be enough.