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WORDS FOR WRITERS: How Do I Get My Book Onto A Screen?

This is a question I see a lot from new writers – “Yeah, sure, I want to write a book, but everyone knows that the real money is in screen adaptations. How do I get that?”

The answer (take it from someone who has had a few close calls) is “not easily.” It can happen, but it is a very long process, with a lot of fingers in a lot of pies, and nothing that you can control until you are already a multi-billionaire who can afford to pay other people to adapt your work as a vanity project. (And even then, you still have to convince a team that your property is going to make them money for them to make it and distribute it.)

So, first things first –if you’re writing a book solely on the hope that someone will turn it into a movie/TV show, I would encourage you to consider that maybe you should be expending your energy on screenwriting instead of novel writing. If that’s where your heart lies, then follow that!

If your heart is still set on the idea of writing a novel, then I’m happy to outline the steps that a book takes from page to screen.

  • Write a novel.
    1. No, seriously.
    2. Write it. Finish it. Edit it. Polish it.
    3. People don’t license adaptation rights for unfinished works/ideas unless you are very, very famous and a proven cash cow. You wanna sell a thing? It generally has to be a FINISHED thing.
  • From the minute you write that novel, you own the copyright on the Intellectual Property (IP) of the world, characters, individual and particular details of the novel. In Canada, you don’t need to register it, but I believe you may in the USA.
  • Publish the book.
    1. You can self-publish it, or go the traditional route.
    2. The book has to be published, or filmmakers will never know it exists. Again, you need to prove that you can finish a thing, and they need the whole story to know what they’re agreeing to. Usually the whole SERIES, if there’s more than one.
  • When you publish a book with a publisher, they will not be buying your book, but paying you in royalties (and maybe advanced royalties if you’re lucky) for the right to license your IP and create a product called “a book” out of it.
    1. There will be subclauses for “a print book” and “an ebook”.
    2. There may also be subclauses for an “audiobook” if the publisher has an attached audio production house and/or is willing to shell out to get it made.
    3. Most indie publishers do not have the money to make an audiobook, and won’t take the rights for that.
      1. In this case you can either pitch it to a house or produce or pay to/make it yourself.
  • HOWEVER, publishers are not production studios and 99.99% of the time will NOT ask for further rights.
    1. Though they may include a clause saying they get to participate in negotiations for those dramatic adaptation rights for your IP.
    2. If they do ask for more rights, consult your i) agent, ii) lawyer, or iii) a friend in the biz to make sure it’s all on the up-and-up.
    3. Again, most indie/small press publishers won’t even bother including a clause regarding dramatic adaptation because they have no connections and no intention to pitch it around for you.
  • Once the book is out in the world either:
    1. An interested party will contact you/your agent (acquisitions folks read review mags and sites all the time), or
    2. The Entertainment Lawyer/Agent at your literary agency will pitch the IP to production houses, or
    3. You the author will start pitching it to production houses/creators, or
    4. You the author will decide to write the screenplay and produce the whole production out of pocket. (In which case, skip down to the celebration part of the list).
  • If A, B, or C: in the event that you get a bite, the interested party (it could be an agent, an actor, a director, a producer, a screenwriter, etc.) will enter into negotiations with you/your agent for the rights to license your IP for a screen adaptation.
  • Like the publisher, the company/individual petitioning for the right to adapt your IP for the screen will arrange to pay you for the right to do so. Generally this comes in three segments – an Option, a Greenlighting Fee, and a Back End Deal.
    1. An Option is a set amount of money that the interested party agrees to pay you annually for exclusive access to your IP and your promise that you won’t sell it out from under them while they work to amass funding/interest/cast and crew to create the adaptation. Basically, they’re paying you to have exclusive right to use your IP, when they get around to it
      1. An option is not a guarantee that the production will be made – people lose interest, funding falls through, studios change hands, screenwriters quit, etc.
      2. But it’s a way for interested parties to ensure that you don’t go wandering away with the IP while they work to contract a screenwriter, audition actors, ask for funding money, and build sets/costumes, and basically revv up to make the thing.
      3. Not every creator gets an Optioning Fee, and sometimes there’s a statute of limitations – i.e. after 10 years, if it still isn’t made and you’ve collected 10 option fees, then you get to take your toys and go elsewhere with them. This is actually good for you, because it makes the interested parties be serious and not just buy your IP to sit on it.
    2. A Greenlighting Fee is a percentage of the budget as it stands when the production is ‘greenlit’ that is gifted to you as a thank you when the production begins.
      1. Not every creator gets a Greenlighting fee, and the percentage changes.
    3. A Backend Deal is a percentage of the box office/merch profits you receive as a royalty after the production has been paid off, and the cast/crew paid out.
      1. Not every creator gets a Backend Deal, and the percentage changes.
  • Once that contract is negotiated between you and the interested party, you can make additions like asking to be the screenwriter (can be a good thing, can be a not good thing), asking to be on set, asking to be in the writing room for a series, asking for input on casting, or to be the story consultant.
    1. Be aware that the interested party can say no. If you don’t like that, then you have to decide if you want to license it to them anyway and remain hands-off, or if you’d like to cancel the deal.
    2. They may ask you to compromise – if you have no prior experience in screenwriting, which is a very different beast, they may pair you with a pro. Or if you don’t know how productions are made, what an on-set script supervisor is or a writing room is, etc. then they may pair you with a teacher-buddy. It’s not an insult. It’s just to make sure you have a support system when new stuff gets tossed at you.
    3. They may say yes. Make sure you really, really, really know what you’re agreeing to.
  • Assuming everything goes well, and you/your agent ink a deal you’re happy with, then an announcement will be made that the screen adaptation is in the works!
    1. Yay!
    2. Productions falter or get trapped in pre-production hell. This is STILL not a guarantee that it will actually happen.
    3. But you have a greater chance now!
  • The production company/ interested party will then get onto the business of sourcing funding, hiring actors, hiring a screenwritier, etc.
    1. You may or may not be consulted in this.
      1. They may really want you there, and really want your involvement.
      2. They may really have a vision of their own and don’t want your input. You need to be ready to just take your money and butt out, if it comes to that.
  • In the meantime? Write something else.
    1. Seriously.
    2. Distract yourself. Making films/TV shows takes YEARS.
    3. Other people might reach out to you interested in what else you may have to license when your first deal is announced. Make sure you have something when opportunity comes to knock!
  • Okay – so, contract signed, production in full swing, adaptation gets made! Yay! Celebration time! Enjoy the premiere!
    1. Oh god, wear comfortable heels. Red carpets are long, and you tip all over the place in stilettos cause the carpets can be squashy.
    2. There’s a photo of me falling on my face. It exists and I cannot make it unexist.
  • You still own the IP.
    1. Unless you signed it away.
    2. Read everything you sign very thoroughly.
  • Start over!

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JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: How Do I Get My Book Onto A Screen?