How Does a Book Get Optioned and Become a Movie?

Photo: 20th Century Fox

As a former comedy agent at UTA and WME, Priyanka represented numerous big-name writers and performers before leaving to start a TV production company with Jack Black. Now she writes and produces on her own, but she still encounters a tidal wave of comedy hopefuls looking for the advice, information, and pep talks that only a former agent can provide.

In show business they say that it’s all about who you know. Well, you’re in luck, because now you know Priyanka!

I’m a pretty established journalist and novelist. I think some of my pieces would make good movies, but how on earth do I get people to option them, other than just waiting for someone in Hollywood to stumble upon me?

–Kate S., New York

(I feel like I should point out that Kate has had a book on the NYT Bestseller List for ages – she’s no slouch, and her work should absolutely be seen on screen. So should many writers whose bestsellers are yet to be written.)

So, Kate, if you’re at all interested in screenwriting, would you take a stab at adapting it yourself? No one knows the characters or story better than you. If you can see the movie, write the movie you see. You’ve written a great book, so honestly you can probably write a decent screenplay. And it pays so much more. I’m sorry, my friends in publishing! I’m so sorry. But, capitalism. Refer to my previous column on screenwriting books, if you’re at all intrigued.

If you have zero interest in screenwriting, or you just want to be more proactive, then first, have faith: The fact that no one in Hollywood has stumbled upon your work is not a measure of its value in our marketplace. “Hot” literary properties are competitive for any number of reasons – a marvelously connected book-to-film agent, a big-money idea with terrible writing that can be massaged by a great screenwriter, three actors simultaneously interested, who knows. Competition in a book or article does not measure of the quality of the underlying work.

“But nobody in LA reads!” groans everyone else. That is a garbage lie. Every city is bursting with morons, and unfortunately ours are more visible than most. The LA friends and colleagues I hold dear read more than you would think humanly possible. Yes, most of the page count is screenplays that will never see the light of day, but that’s the nature of the business. In addition to just reading for fun, which does happen here, it’s a good executive’s job to up to date on articles and books as well as new screenwriters, so don’t dismiss us just yet.

My advice is to remain involved – don’t make the mistake of delegating and crossing your fingers because you think you know nothing about the entertainment world. Learn something about the world and it will serve you well! Presumably, as you are published, you have a publishing agent. That publishing agent will have book-to-film contacts with whom you can build relationships. Get to know your book-to-film team! I’m consistently surprised by how many writers in other parts of the country don’t know the wonderful book to film community in LA. It’s supportive and warm, and they love to read – they’re your people! In fact, they are way better than your people because they have access to big-name actors and directors. Have your agent put you in touch and email them, meet them, get to know them. They love your book, and will work even harder for you once they actually see you as a person instead of just a needy name on their client list.

Most important, have a vision for your book, and play a role in its adaptation. Don’t act as though you don’t care what happens to your book. Formulate a clear idea of what the movie is, and be able to describe it in a couple of sentences. I’m assuming you’ve seen movies, or television. I bet you have actors and directors in mind for your perfect screen version. Are the actors you envision represented at the agency your book will be? Even if they aren’t, send over your wishlist, and your book-to-film agents can make sure they read it. And then follow up! Even just getting on everyone’s radar is a nice start. It familiarizes the town with your name and work, and even if the specific article sent them isn’t the thing to option, you’d be surprised by how quickly they might comb though your back catalog. It’s not the worst thing to meet some producers, directors, writers, actors. Nothing impresses a bunch of Hollywood folks like someone who has written a book. Original ideas are in short supply, and you can present yourself as their direct pipeline.

Obviously your team’s goal is already to get your work out to the town, but specific input and collaboration with your agent goes a long way. I often tell writers to behave as though no one cares about their careers more than they do. It’s too easy to say something isn’t happening because someone else has dropped the ball. Part of your job is to roll up your sleeves and lug that ball around until the things you want start happening.

An aside for those without representation: If you are a working writer, someone you know has an agent. Or knows one person who works in entertainment. If you insist this isn’t true, google some book-to-film- agents and see which Facebook friends you have in common, because you will have friends in common, and ask for an introduction. If you think this is annoying, strike that word from your vocabulary and replace with “persistent.” The worst thing they can do is not respond. No one will come to your house and hit you in the face.

Now here’s the bummer caveat – please manage your expectations, especially financial. Many writers I know think that once something gets optioned it means a windfall. Absolutely not! I don’t want to go through all of the deal points for a standard option, but here are the broad strokes.

Option fees are small. Unless you’re dealing with a competitive studio situation, we are talking a range of $500-5000, to a high end of $10,000 (although there are outliers in competitive situations). That is your money for a year. The “real” money is in the purchase price, which you get paid if the movie actually gets made – say this is around 2% of the movie’s budget, with a cap. So for an indie that has a $5 million budget, that’s $50k. for a studio movie in the $20 million range that can be upward of $400k, but is likely capped. TV deals are structured for pilots and then episodes, if a series is ordered (big if). This is a long-winded way to say – count on an option not to bring you money, but to build your reputation, and to get more of your work optioned. Movies can take a year in development but could easily take 6-10 years, or just evaporate when your director is offered the next Marvel movie. Cautious and mildly distracted optimism is the best approach when your work has been optioned.

Instead of a traditional option offer, which tends to come from more established entities and studios, sometimes an producer will also approach with a shopping agreement, whereby she asks for an excusive window to package the material with a writer, director, and/or actor before taking it out to buyers. In either case, you want to make sure you’re loaning your material to someone with a good track record, solid agent and talent relationships, and a similar vision of what the movie or show should be. Because upfront money is often negligible in either case, it can pay off to take a chance on a hardworking young indie producer (I realize I am now just pitching myself) who may love the project enough to work tirelessly until the perfect package coalesces. Ultimately, your work is your baby, and you get to choose its caretaker. Anyway, have you reconsidered adapting that baby yourself?

How Does a Book Get Optioned and Become a Movie?