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Selling adaptations


Selling adaptations of books to the film industry

A report from the London Book Fair of a talk given by Julian Friedman of Blake Friedmann Literary and Script Agents

The agency was founded in 1982

The co-founders - Carole Blake and Julian Friedmann - started their original agencies in the 1970s.

Represent writers rather than one-off projects, building a client's career in many markets and many media.

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on 6 March 2006

Julian Friedman said that filmmakers like to work from a bestselling book. High visibility of the title is perceived as removing one risk from the equation, although history relates that this strategy is not firmly based on the facts. Adaptations of works of both fact and fiction can fail artistically and at the box office.

Adapting a book is not straightforward and requires an understanding of the key difference between the media. Books and words create their images using the reader’s imagination, whereas a script has to provide the visual context with just the words telling the story.

Adaptations of bestsellers can flop but, when it comes to convincing investors, it is easier if people know what they are backing. However, if filmmakers believe the author is capable of writing his or her own script, they get the opportunity to make some serious money from their writing.

From the writer’s perspective there is one piece of very good news when selling film rights. The payment made in relation to an option is non-returnable. One school of thought is that authors should grab the money and run, but remember that scriptwriting is much better paid than writing fiction. So there is a temptation for the writer to try to take on the job of scriptwriting and benefit from the fat fees paid to the scriptwriter if the film is eventually made.

A negotiated option might include the right of the author to produce the first adaptation and therefore a share of the lucrative scriptwriting fee. But Julian added a word of warning that this would be useless unless the contract insisted that the producers must provide notes when they reject the first script, which invariably happens. This clause can allow the author to have a second shot at the script before another writer is called in. If you have a good agent they will try to get a ‘kill fee’ to compensate the writer if they do not get the job of writing the script.

But if writers are selling their work to be made into a film, they must be willing to relinquish artistic control of every aspect of their work. The writer can talk but the producer does not have to listen. Many producers have been quoted as saying that the best collaborator when working on an adaptation is a long-dead writer. There is always a creative tension between the author and producer, but once you have sold an option the producer is in charge.

On the business side, writers need to understand that those funding films want to turn everything they can into a brand. This covers not only the book, its plot and characters but also the location and the future development of all of the component parts of a book. The complexity of negotiating all these details is magnified by the failure of many rights owners to exploit their rights within the time allowed. So negotiations must look at the residuals and time limits. This is not a do-it-yourself project for a writer.

Negotiating options requires some complex sums. An upfront lump sum is not necessarily the best strategy. Writers need to think about how a film will impact on the sales of their current and future books. A successful film pays a double dividend but an option that might be turned into a film in the distant future might not be worth waiting for. Most options are never exercised, so the expiry dates need to be agreed so that the option can be presented for re-sale.

This might not be straightforward as there are other rights to be considered. The option might include the rights to the characters. If the character is going to become a star, the option holder is going to try and retain control of the name, so some strategic thinking is called for before anything is signed away. This rolling option is important to the company which will be out to protect what they see as their brand.

An author might have to agree to offer any existing option holder first refusal on future books. If you are not careful you will find that you are receiving only 50% for any sequel. There would not appear to be any logic in this reduced provision, but it is one of those outdated conditions which ranks alongside the handful of free copies given by the publisher to an author.

Just as there are many advantages to having a literary agent to represent your book, it is probably essential to have an agent if you are writing a script, as the complexities are even greater. So, as you contemplate your next work, give some thought to how it might be pitched to the movies makers. Unless you are very well-placed, you are going to need one of the specialist script agents to help you.