I’m often asked what I look for when I evaluate books for the movie biz.
First and foremost, I look for the elements that are important to my employers–things that they are specifically looking for in terms of genre, execution, etcetera. I read for a couple of different places, and each has a slightly different mandate.
In general, in order for a book to become a movie it has to have a strong, forward-moving plot line, and a premise that you can easily picture on a poster or in a TV ad campaign. Deal killers are:
1) The story has been done before
2) The concept is “soft”–takes too long to explain because it has a lot of nuance. This is also called “execution dependent.” The Hours is a prime example of this. Generally speaking, you can only get away with a soft concept when the book is a bestseller.
3) The story is small, meaning the stakes don’t feel like they matter very much or that the obstacles seem easily surmountable.
If you have read a book and think you have what it takes to turn it into a movie–
DO NOT START WRITING.
It is imperative that you obtain the film rights to the book before you begin the adaptation.
“But Superfast Reader, what if I write it so good that the movie people just have to have it?”
The answer to that is litigation.
If the rights have already been taken, not only will no one read your script, they might actually take legal action against you to stop you from writing (and the law would be on their side). In the case of Writers’ Guild credit arbitration, which determines, in the case of multiple writers, who contributed what elements to a screenplay, only writers hired by the rights-holder will be considered. So if you think one of your ideas ended up in the movie, you’re basically out of luck–unless you know for sure that someone at that company read your script and stole your idea. These kinds of lawsuits do happen, but they are very costly to bring to court. And because of high-profile story-stealing cases like Coming to America, studios, financiers, and production companies are on their guard. Nobody, and I mean nobody, in their right mind will touch your script for their with a 10-foot pole.
If the rights aren’t available, you might think that you should write the screenplay to prove that the book would make a great movie, enticing a moneybags to option the book for you. Here, you run the risk of losing the book to someone else, which would take you back into the nightmare of the 1st situation. You’re just setting yourself up for heartbreak.
To find out rights availability for a book, the official route is to call the publisher and ask to speak to “Subsidiary Rights.” More than likely, you will get a recording requesting that you fax or email a request. Some publishers have this information on their websites as well. You are inquiring about the film rights, and in your letter you must also establish why they should give you this information. If they don’t deem you a legitimate candidate, they might never, ever respond to you.
The good news is that many writers have websites and allow you to contact them directly. Your best bet, if you really fall in love with a book, is to make your case directly to the author, and get him on your side. If you’re lucky, you’ll hit it off and she’ll option her book to you. Now you have the legal right to shop the book around, write the screenplay, and make the movie.
Last night’s work read was the new book by a best-selling author who I just really don’t get at all. His books are way too weird for me, and this was no exception.