By Lisa Stahl
Movies like Forrest Gump, Brokeback Mountain, The Irishman, and Little Women have more in common than mere artistry, critical acclaim or commercial success. They were all adaptations of literary works.
But before getting your pens out, there’s more to it than you think. Literary works are great resources for screenwriters in search of stories or built-in dramatic structures, but to negotiate the business end and avoid pitfalls or potential legal liabilities, you need advice from experts. NYWIFT’s April 15 The Business of Adaptations for Film and TV virtual program brought a panel of industry powerhouses to weigh in.
Hosted and produced by Jennifer Wilkov, an award-winning best-selling author and consultant to first-time and seasoned writers, the panel included: a founding partner of an entertainment law firm, NYWIFT Board Member Maria Miles who, as an expert in all aspects of intellectual property law, has represented award-winning actors, writers, producers, TV hosts, and multi-platinum recording artists; Jenevieve Brewer, a talent manager whose acting clients have landed roles on God Friended Me, Blue Bloods, Billions, The Irishman, Broadway, and commercials for Nike and Coca-Cola; script analyst, script doctor, writer, and lecturer Mark DeGasperi, who’s scouted material for Miramax, New Line Cinema, Universal and William Morris; Jill Williams, whose two decades of executive producing, content creating and TV writing experience for NBC, ABC, Bravo, Lifetime and Oxygen prime time TV have served her well on projects that include The Biggest Loser and Project Runway; an author, screenwriter, educator, producer (The Wedding Planner) and program director for NYU Los Angeles, Nina Sadowski; and an award-winning producer/director, Lane Bishop, author of Sell Your Story in a Single Sentence: Advice from the Front Lines of Hollywood (2016) whose go-to book-to-screen entertainment company has several feature films in development (CBS, NBC, Netflix, Lifetime).
Some key takeaways from the program follow:
An Industry Legacy
First things first: Adaptations have been industry staples since the first Academy Awards.
At the 2020 Oscars, seven films whose screenplays were based on literary adaptations were nominated in 37 categories. Literary works are fertile ground for screenwriters because audiences respond to them: a recent Gallup poll reports more Americans went to the library last year than the movies.
But before investing time in a potentially fruitless endeavor, you need to ask important questions about your possible literary source:
- Who has the legal rights?
- Are they life rights?
- What or who is the market for this? (If the market’s over-saturated in this subject, forget it.)
About your concept:
- Is it best suited for feature film, episodic TV, or a mini-series?
- How unique is your script?
The first questions your manager or agent will ask are: Do you control the rights? If not, can you obtain them?
To start answering, start researching. Begin with the inner flap of a book; look for the copyright date. Books with copyrights pre-1923 are in the public domain, unless they were re-issued or re-edited.
Once you have the right to the story and the script is finished, you’ll likely be involved in other tricky negotiations, namely options.
Options give a production company or studio exclusive control over your script. Works are “optioned” for a period of time (12-18 months typically, with an option to extend) at an average price of 2% or 3% of the budget.
Sourcing the Material
Think beyond the obvious. Some agents and managers are looking for projects based on unpublished stories or novels. Some successful movies have been adaptations of plays (A Few Good Men), comic books, or even radio programs.
You market your script in two distinct ways: logline and pitch.
One panelist suggested writing the pitch before you write the screenplay. Your pitch is how you sell your concept to television. Write six or seven sentences describing the trajectory of your story. If it sounds compelling, that’s your pitch.
Next, create a compelling logline (one liner). A logline describes the story’s central conflict, the plot, ideally with an emotional “hook” to stimulate interest.
Finally, find a buyer who’s looking for that type of material.
Buyers look for good drama: i.e. a main character has a strong need but obstacles thwart that need. Buyers also want to know if the screenplay fulfills an audience’s expectations for that genre and are always looking for a good story, a work that’s unique or exceptional (which is sometimes a subjective evaluation).
If you submit your script to production companies or studios unsolicited or unrepresented, it’s unlikely that script will go anywhere.
As you’ve probably surmised, you need to be represented by agents, managers, and/or attorneys.
Finding representation may be difficult for newbie writers. One way to get a manager is to win a fellowship or place high in a screenwriting contest.
Managers and agents perform difference functions. Managers develop talent and help you build your career. Agents deal more with sales.
Other quick tips from the panel:
- It’s easier to make a good movie out of a mediocre story or novel than a great adaptation of a great novel.
- It’s a long winding road to get something produced and developed. You need the passion to keep navigating.
- Be prepared for constant rejection.
- If you have an adaptation idea, you don’t need to write the script. You can hire someone else to write it. Just make sure you own the rights and have thought through the story arcs.
- To protect yourself and your script, register it with the Writers Guild of America or US Copyright Office before shopping it around. But be careful about loglines or concepts – they’re much easier to steal.
- Build a team of representatives.
- And feel free to reach out to the panelists with questions.
Bottom line: This business is not for the faint of heart. But don’t let that deter you. For those who persevere, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel: immense artistic satisfaction and potentially big bucks.
Learn more about upcoming NYWIFT programs at nywift.org/events.
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