30 May 2013

BEA 2013: Your book could be our movie

Live from BookExpo America, a major trade show for the book publishing industry.
Great news! I found my next job, an occupation I should have known existed all along but was never aware of till today when I attended a “Text to Screen” panel sponsored by the Sundance Institute. The job is: Literary scout for a film producer, reading galleys and excerpts and cultivating journalists and writers in order to find their next big project. I love movies and I can read quickly. This is perfect! Although, as I learned, the path to acquiring and executing those rights is anything but straightforward.

The panel featured producers Julie Goldman (“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”), Evan Hayes (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “Senna”) and Mary Jane Skalski (“The Visitor,” “Win Win”) along with lawyer Victoria Cook, who is experienced at putting these types of rights deals together. All the producers said they frequently look to books and articles to find new projects; Hayes recently optioned Kevin Powers’ National Book Award finalist THE YELLOW BIRDS, while Goldman worked closely with Samantha Power to adapt her book CHASING THE FLAME, a biography of a Brazilian diplomat, into the movie “Sergio.” In both cases scouts and prior connections helped them identify they were good properties and they went after them. (A minor takeaway from this panel: Iraq War properties are really strong right now. Mission Accomplished?) Acquiring sources is much easier in the U.S., where writers normally retain film rights to their work, than in non-North American markets where publishers have traditionally taken the rights (though with prodding from Hollywood this is changing).

Cook described her role in the negotiating process was to pour cold water on the expectations of people on both sides of the table – writers with optionable books, and production companies dreaming of ascending to the Oscar dais. Writers are at risk of wanting too much control over the finished product (“The director is the author of the movie,” is the amazing phrase she used) or signing with the highest bidder regardless of who would make the best creative partner to a project. Producers are at risk of getting carried away and overbidding because someone else (Scott Rudin was the running example) comes in with a lot of money, or letting enthusiasm push them to accept terms that will make it harder for a movie to eventually get made. Hayes offered as an example of this an author or writer who wants director, star or screenplay approval over their baby. That’s why Cook always pushes her clients not to ask for final approval as part of a deal: “As much as an author could be the most brilliant author, like Stephen King, he hated ‘The Shining.’ If he hadn’t liked it and been able to make those changes, we would never have gotten the Kubrick film.”

Another thing I learned, though, was that purchasing those rights isn’t always necessary for events that take place in the public domain. Often, Cook explained, production companies that option a memoir are doing so for other reasons besides what’s on the page – getting additional background that didn’t make it to print, consulting work on the film, or connections represented by the author. Hayes worked on “United 93,” for which there were many accounts available but no need to buy any because the events of 9/11 happened essentially in the public domain. In another case, he ended up purchasing the rights to IMPERIAL LIFE IN THE EMERALD CITY, about Americans in the American-only section of Baghdad, primarily to convince his financing partners on the movie “Green Zone” (directed by Paul Greengrass) that it was a solid property. This puts a slight wrinkle into my glorious future as a film scout; then again, the process will never go away, particularly for uncovering those “untold true stories” that producers love. 

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