Let’s have one of our little thought experiments. Okay, close your eyes and imagine that you are a writer whose latest tome has hit the best-seller list and now the Hollywood studios are sniffing around.
What do you do?
Well, you have two options. One is to say “no” and be content with never seeing your book portrayed on screen until a century after your death and it becomes public domain. However, very few authors can actually afford to do that, because Hollywood studios are masters of presenting you with offers that look so good, in relation to your present circumstances, it would be wildly financially irresponsible to say “no.”
So let’s just assume that you’re going to sell the movie rights and look a look at the process before we get to the things you need to look out for. The first thing is something called the option. The option is where a producer will pay you money, and in exchange you will let the producer hold onto the movie rights for a set period of time, usually two years, and if in that time a film version goes into production, you get paid the rest of a pre-determined amount. If the film isn’t made in that period of time, then the buyer can either pay you for another two year option, or you can find someone else to sell it to.
Okay, now that we have the process down pat, let’s take a look at what you need to look out for.
Look for the best people. In movies it’s all about who you are dealing with. So when an offer comes in, do your research. That means looking at their track record, see what their friends say about them, see what other writers say about them, and, more importantly, what their enemies and rivals say about them.
Look for the best up-front money deal. The studios will offer you a piece of the action. They will give this piece of the action many names, but those names are usually cover for the “net.” The net is a myth. Legend has it the last movie to pay off net profits was Splash in the early 1980s, and ever since it’s been harder to catch than a Sasquatch.
They’re not going to offer you a piece of the gross, that’s strictly for “A-List” movie stars with scary agents. So while you’ll have to settle for net, make sure you get the maximum you can get in cash, up-front. If you are looking for a piece of the action make sure that your contract gets you a piece of any and all merchandising and related licensing, as well as fees for TV/video/streaming sales, sequels and remakes based upon the performance of the first one as well as the new film’s budget. But don’t give up any up front money, because there’s a good chance that will be the only money you get.
Don’t sign anything that will force you to talk about the movie. The history of cinema is loaded with stories of books being completely bastardized. Even books considered classics can be chewed up by the Hollywood machine and spat out leaving a gooey pulp that has no relation to the original product other than a title. You might, for example, have a collection of stories that tackle the philosophical and ethical issues that surround the development of artificial intelligence, and end up with an FX heavy action movie starring Will Smith wearing what appears to be a leather condom on his head.
You do not want to be put into a position where they completely bend your book over a chair and bugger it with a wire brush, and then be contractually forced to say how happy you are with it.
But, and this is a big, Will Smith’s trailer sized but, you don’t want to be caught bad-mouthing the movie version in public. Remember the cautionary tale of action-thriller author Clive Cussler. Cussler was paid $10 million for the movie rights to his best-selling adventure novel Sahara. The movie was made, and it was a critical failure, and made about half of its total production and distribution budget at the box office. Cussler filed suit for millions, claiming that the producer, Phillip Anschutz violated Cussler’s agreed upon script approval, and that was why the movie tanked.
Anschutz countersued, claiming Cussler’s criticisms had sabotaged the film and that’s why the movie bombed. Both sides sent in their big money legal attack dogs, and Anschutz won almost $20 million in damages and court costs from Cussler.
Then that verdict got tossed on appeal.
Cussler then filed another lawsuit, but by this point it doesn’t matter who wins, because by this point the only people winning anything were their overpriced lawyers.
The lesson here is, if you like the movie adaptation, then feel free to plug it. If you don’t like it, it’s best to just remain silent, and not be contractually forced to say anything.
Now that we’ve gone over the horrors to look out for, the best policy is to just sell it, cash the check, write another book, and when someone asks: “What do you think about what they did to your book?” answer: “They did nothing to my book, it’s still there on the shelf, they just paid me to let them make a movie.”
It’s the only way you can survive the book to movie process with your money and more importantly, your sanity, intact.