When a novel is adapted into a film or television series, how does compensation to the writer of the original novel work?
Does a studio pay the writer in one lump sum and then is allowed to do whatever they want with the property? Or does the original writer still benefit in some form if the adapted film or series is successful? For example, in the case of the television show Dexter, does Jeff Lindsay receive any extra compensation because the show has lasted as long as it has? Or was he paid only once, and then the success of the series makes no impact on his checkbook?
I don’t know the specific deal with Dexter. But as a general case, yes, both scenarios are possible.
The studio (or producers) might pay a lump sum for all theatrical and/or television rights, generally structured as an option agreement. (Some money now for an exclusive hold on the rights, more money later if we decide to make it.)
Particularly in the case of a best-selling novel, the writer’s deal could include some form of backend. For a television series, that would likely be a specific amount per episode produced, along with a piece of the show’s profits. For feature films, it could be anything from a percentage of net profits (which almost never actually occur) to staggered bonuses at certain thresholds of domestic or worldwide box office.
Studios often buy books as manuscripts before they’re published. (That was the case with Big Fish.) In that situation, there may be language in the contract stipulating additional fees if the book enters the New York Times bestseller list, or some other event after publication.
For a novelist, a successful film or television adaptation should result in more sales of her book, and that money is all hers. The studio doesn’t get any portion of Stephenie Meyer’s publishing money for the Twilight series, nor Lindsay’s for Dexter.
So, I understand the merits of re-making movies from the past, or making old TV shows into features. I also get it from a studios perspective inasmuch as it’s a known property that has a fanbase, or has made a profit in the past.
But when I see studios making adaptations of toys like “Magic 8 Ball” or “Battleship” or “Stretch Armstrong” it really bums out the aspiring writer in me. It makes me think Hollywood doesn’t want my original idea. Can you talk me down from the ledge?
– Logan Los Angeles
Logan, I’m right there on the ledge with you. But when you look down past your shoelaces, you realize that it’s not rocks and crashing waves below. The ledge we’re standing on is about eight feet high. At the bottom is concrete.
Jump wrong, and it’s going to be painful. Jump carefully, and you’ll be fine.
Yes, I rolled my eyes when the “Battleship” movie was announced. But I’ll happily see a modern naval war movie, and if it has to be named after a Milton Bradley property, so be it. A hidden upside to writing a movie based on just a title is that the screenwriter has huge latitude, unlike a book or TV adaptation.
Pendulums swing. It was dumb to make a movie out of a theme park ride before Pirates of the Caribbean. This trend towards making movies out of properties with no inherent narrative will eventually end. (A big success from an original like Inception might help.) In the meantime, let’s root for the best versions of these projects.
Good movies are a blessing, regardless of the source.
I’m writing because I find myself at a crossroads, and I could use some good advice.
I’m an early career writer-director with ten years of experience as a theater director. In the last few years, I’ve written and directed a couple of good short films, and written a couple of spec scripts, one of which is in development with an independent producer. Recently, I got a literary agent, a smart guy working for a good agency, and he wants to try to build a career for me as a screenwriter.
My dilemma involves my new, suddenly popular spec script, and how to use it to move closer to my goal of directing independent features. The script is a dark, metaphysical romantic comedy in the vein of a Charlie Kaufman film, and industry people who read it get very excited about it, noting that it is both highly original and commercial.
My agent, who is also enthused about the script, suggests that I tone down its darker elements, and try to sell it to a studio as a more conventional romantic comedy. If we do try and sell it, does it make sense to make the script more mainstream?
I’m inclined to look for a producer, and get a name actor attached, with an eye toward directing it myself as a small independent film. I know I have the skills to do it justice, but will my status as an unknown be a serious obstacle in the search for financing?
My agent says the time to make the leap to directing would be after I’ve established myself via my writing, four or five years from now. Given my background, this strikes me as an overly cautious approach. How much is his advice colored by his perspective as a literary agent?
– Nick Los Angeles
Direct it yourself.
Why? Because you want to be a director. You have experience as a theatre director. And even though there’s a possibility that you’ll be able to sell your script to a studio, then attach a meaningful director, then get it made, then get your writing career started, the odds of all the elements coming together are pretty remote.
Remote enough that you might as well direct it yourself, assuming you can do it for an independent film budget.
Yes, there are counter-examples. Charlie Kaufman has only now begun directing, and Zach Helm didn’t direct Stranger Than Fiction, though he’s directing a film now. And, for that matter, I didn’t direct Go. But I was aiming to be a screenwriter, and I became one.
People forget that Sam Mendes had only directed theatre before American Beauty. Tell your agent that you see yourself as more of a Sam Mendes/Alan Ball hybrid, and start meeting with indie producers.
Back in March, I was a panelist on a Writers Guild Foundation forum about publicity — specifically, how film and television writers should approach promoting themselves and their work through the media. As I wrote at the time, it seemed to go pretty well.
This afternoon, I was ego-Googling and discovered that clips from the seminar are available on YouTube:
The audio’s not terrific, and so you’ll probably need to turn your speakers up. This is the main section with me; there are two otherparts focusing on other panelists, which you can find if you click through to the main YouTube site.
Chris Day, the head of publicity for UTA, references a memo I wrote around the time of Big Fish. You can find a .pdf of that here.
I’m a USC student, and I have a summer job as an assistant at one of the big agencies in town. Would it be a faux pas to ask someone, like an agent, to read my spec script? The assistant who sits next to me has a script, too, but is submitting it to Disney rather than asking someone here to read it, which makes me think it’s not done, to ask someone here to read my spec. Any thoughts?
Here’s the thing: Every intern has a script. So don’t shove your spec on anyone at the agency. Buckle down and do your internship, asking smart questions or becoming invisible as the situation warrants.
As the summer progresses, figure out which of your fellow interns are not evil. And if the situation warrants, invite them to read your script — and do the same for them. These peers are actually far more helpful in the long run than your superiors.
If, as the internship is winding down, you’ve really hit it off with one particular agent, you can mention that you wrote a comedy about vampire wrestlers in Tucson. If he says, “Hey, I’d like to read that,” great. If he nods and looks uncomfortable, don’t push it. You’ll ruin a possible contact later on.
My question is not about screenwriting per se, but rather about writing about films. Screenwriters, myself included, are not fond of essays about movies that ignore the contributions of writers. Do you have a stylistic preference for attributing authorship when writing about a movie, when each person’s individual contributions are not known? As an example, here’s a sentence from an essay I wrote about Armageddon:
In the real world, [a mission briefing] would probably happen in a briefing room. Michael Bay decided he wanted it to happen in the shuttle assembly building with a B-2 and 2 SR-71 Blackbirds.
Now I donâ€™t know that this was Michael Bay’s decision — it may have been in one of the drafts of the script — or it may have been decided by Jerry Bruckheimer. But if I wanted to cover my bases, I would have to say:
Michael Bay, Jonathan Hensleigh, J.J. Abrams, Tony Gilroy, Shane Salerno, Robert Roy Pool, Jonathan Hensleigh, and Jerry Bruckheimer decided they wanted it to happenâ€¦
This seems incorrect. Alternatively, I could recast the sentence as:
“In the film, this happens in the shuttle assembly roomâ€¦”
“In Armageddon, this happens inâ€¦”
But doing this consistently means treating the film as essentially authorless. This is probably truer of Armageddon than of most movies, but I don’t like it stylistically. What’s your preference? Say I was writing about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and specifically about something that happens in the film. Furthermore, assume I know nothing about the differences between the book, the script, and the finished film (which is usually the case when writing about a film). Would you prefer:
“Dahl, August, and Burton’s characters,”
“Dahl and August’s characters,”
“The characters in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,”
Or some formulation I’m not seeing?
This isn’t entirely an academic question — I write about movies at Criterion Collection, and recently someone in the comments criticised me for saying things like “Scorsese’s version of Jesus” when writing about The Last Temptation of Christ. So I revised the essay to be more precise — but that meant a lot of sentences that read “the film’s version of Jesus,” and I’m hoping you can think of something more elegant.
Normally, I lop off these thanks-for-your-blog comments, but I was feeling a little down, so that perked me up. Now, on to your question.
I don’t think there’s a perfect way to address authorship of a movie, but you’re right to be sensitive to the ambiguities. The characters in Charlie and the Chocolate factory are mine, and Dahl’s, and Tim’s, and the actors’. At every step in the process, choices were made by many people for many reasons. The same can be said for the sets, the music, the wardrobe, and the choreography.
If you’re writing about Tim Burton’s body of work, I think it’s absolutely fair to use a phrase like, “Burton’s characters tend to…”, since you’re pointing out a consistency across many different films. (You could do the same for characters in the films I’ve written, or the characters Johnny Depp has played.) Even if the person you’re talking about didn’t create these characters, the fact that there’s similarity between them indicates a certain mindset. An actor or a director might be consistently drawn towards artistic outsiders, for example.
It’s only when you’re looking at one specific film that you need to be careful not to hand out credit indiscriminately. Constructions like, “The characters in Burton’s film,” make it clear you’re not talking about the 1970 version.
I have no issue with the attributive apostrophe. It’s Tim Burton’s film; it’s Richard Zanuck’s film; it’s Warner Bros.’s film. Nor do I mind “A Joe Schmo Film” — it’s including the film in the director’s (or a star’s) canon. The only credit that sets my teeth on edge is “A Film By Some Director.” Both on-screen and in print, the “by” feels like an unwarranted grab for authorship. Even a writer-director is working with a crew of talented professionals to make the movie you’re seeing. That’s why I refused the credit on The Nines. But I know a lot of smart and good people who do use the credit, so I’m not slamming them for it.
In a previous post, I’d mentioned that the screenwriter’s name seems to be much more likely to show up in a negative review than a positive one. No one’s taken me up on the challenge to see if that’s really true, but the offer’s still out there. If anyone wants to do a statistical study of a few films on Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic, I’d love to publish what you find.
Last week, I attended the First Annual WGAw Screenwriters’ Dinner. I’m not sure one should call a first-ever event “annual,” but it was successful enough that it merits a repeat in 52 weeks.
Since screenwriters tend to work alone, there’s not a lot of water-cooler talk on a daily basis. Message boards help to some degree, but WGA events are often the only venues for catching up in person. For example, it had been 23 months since I’d last seen Simon Kinberg. I know because our kids were born the same week.
The event also gave me a chance to meet a lot of writers I’d only known by name — Billy Ray and Jeff Nathanson, to pick two tablemates. Seeing my nametag, Iris Yamashita said she’d just pitched a project as being “Big Fish meets Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which was flattering. I wanted to point out that she has the Oscar nomination, but we were already being urged to take our seats. I introduced Jessica Bendinger to Robert Towne, even though I didn’t really know Mr. Towne. It felt like the kind of event you could get away with that.
I got roped into recording an interview for a video podcast. If it ever hits the inter-waves, you might notice my hands shaking. I had just arrived, and was incredibly hungry. The mini-pizzas hadn’t made their way over yet.
I’m sure this is an unusual type of email, but I am doing some footwork for a friend of mine who wants to be a script doctor and doesn’t really know where to start. Right now he has a degree in English - Creative Writing and some film classes under his belt, but no experience in the industry. Can you offer some quick advise to someone looking to break into the field?
Actually, this basic question comes up a fair amount, so it’s time I explain a term of art:
An established screenwriter with significant credits who rewrites a script to address specific concerns, often shortly before production begins.
By this definition, I am a script doctor. I get brought in to help out on big expensive movies — two of which you’ll see in Summer 2008. They pay me significant money to do a few weeks’ work, for which I’ll never get credit. I’m hired for my talent, hopefully, but also my track record in getting movies up on their feet. I enjoy the work, partially because it’s a chance to date other movies while being married to the ones I’m “really” writing.
The thing is, no one who actually is a script doctor uses the term. My hunch is that some journalist made it up, likely because the work the screenwriter is doing on a script in this stage is often described as “surgical” — you’re going in to fix a very specific issue, and leaving everything else intact. Steve Zaillian is often brought up as script doctor, but make no mistake, that’s not a side-job to his writing career. It is part of his writing career.
To summarize, Heather, a script doctor is a screenwriter. So if that’s your friend’s goal, he needs to write a lot of scripts and have them produced. There are also non-writers involved in the process of shaping a story — producers, development executives — but their focus is working with a writer. If that’s his ambition, he’ll start out in the trenches, answering phones and writing script coverage.
In the industry, a script doctor is an established screenwriter with a bunch of credits who comes in on a project shortly before production and does a rewrite to fix some specific, nagging problems. (Or, depending on your perspective, destroys the things that made the project unique.) Steve Zaillian is a highly-regarded script doctor. Arguably, I could be considered a script doctor, because Iâ€™ve done a fair number of these 23rd-hour emergency jobs. But no oneâ€™s business card reads â€œscript doctor.â€ Itâ€™s a specific task within screenwriting, but not really a profession in-and-of itself.
A lot of times, the work you do on these projects is described as â€œsurgical,â€ which fits well with the script doctor moniker. Generally, youâ€™re not rewriting the whole script. Youâ€™re fixing a few key sections that arenâ€™t working.
It’s strange to read an answer written nearly three years ago and see the same phrasing, same examples. I guess it’s good that I’m consistent.
By the way, I’ve added this to the wiki, in anticipation of the next time someone asks the question.
This may seem like a strange question, but I was hoping you could answer it for me. I am an African-American aspiring screenwriter and I was curious about how the industry views us. Are Black screenwriters seen as being able to only write material with themes pertaining to our race?
I don’t know of very many African-American screenwriters working regularly in films today and the ones I do know of tend to write “Black films.” Should I send out a spec script specifically related to the African-American experience, or will my writing (or, more pointedly, will I) be viewed with colorblind eyes? Most of what I write is genre material (horror, suspense, mystery) and race is rarely an issue. Will this be a problem?
I hate to dump a huge issue like this at your feet, but I visit your website regularly and I’ve greatly appreciated your insights into the industry and screenwriting. Also, let me say, I am only interested in your opinion based on what you’ve observed. I am not expecting a definitive answer. I won’t hold you liable for what you say. I understand that this isn’t your field of expertise. I don’t expect you to explain how race works in Hollywood, but I would value your input.
– Ben Los Angeles
Ben offered me so many outs in that last paragraph that I pretty much had to lob up some kind of opinion. Obviously, I have zero experience as an African-American screenwriter. The closest I come to minority status is being gay, and other than some awkward moments and a few jobs I wouldn’t want anyway, it hasn’t been a giant hindrance. All I can offer is a decade of watching how Hollywood works, and some predictions on what you might encounter.
First off, I’m going to assume you’re a genuinely talented screenwriter. This whole exercise is based on that postulate. A poor-to-mediocre screenwriter would find a different path in the industry, and I honestly get depressed thinking about the travails of untalented writers.
So for the sake of this thought experiment, you’re great. By that I mean, anyone reading your script would say you’ve got chops and an original voice. How will your being African-American affect your career?
Let’s start with meetings, since these face-to-face encounters with agents, managers, producers and development executives are a crucial part of a screenwriter’s job. Your great script will get you meetings, no problem. But how will you be received in the room?
My hunch: enthusiastically. Remember, the assumption in this exercise is that you’re very talented, so they’re inclined to like you regardless. But here’s what you might not know until I tell you: every studio and every network has public goals to increase their diversity across the board, starting with writers. Some places have special programs. Some have incentives for hiring minority writers. They’re all trying — sometimes not hard enough, sometimes in the wrong ways, sometimes ineptly. One could debate the merits of these programs. We won’t. We’ll just say that a talented young minority screenwriter is incredibly appealing. I know writers who’ve been able to get a first job because of minority hiring goals. If it helps open a door, by all means walk through.
But will you get pegged as “a black screenwriter?” Will you only get offered rewrites of Martin Lawrence comedies?
In my experience, you get typecast more by your work than who you are. My first two paid screenwriting jobs were adapting kids’ books. I got typecast as a soft kids’ comedy guy, which isn’t particularly me at all. It wasn’t until Go that I was even considered for an R-rated movie.
As far as race being a factor, my best anecdote comes from David Dean Botrell, who wrote Kingdom Come, which starred Whoopi Goldberg and a predominately Black cast. David told me that afterwards, he got called in for meetings on many other African-American centered projects, which was odd, because he’s whiter than I am. People mistakenly assumed he was Black. The reverse feels true as well: if you wrote Legally Blonde, they’d want you write that Kate Hudson comedy no matter what your ethnicity.
Should you, Ben, write a spec with African-American themes? Maybe. Less because of how frames it you than because there are specific production companies — and specific actors — who are always looking for material.
Again, I can only offer examples from limited experience. Shonda Rhimes was a classmate of mine at USC, whose spec historical drama centering on a young Black woman came close to production with Jada Pinkett (pre-Will Smith, as I recall). It never got made, but it provided Shonda some exposure. Her first major credit was Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, starring Halle Berry. Shonda’s next twocredits were not Black-centered at all, and now she runs Grey’s Anatomy, which while diverse, is not particular to the African-American experience.
I haven’t seen Shonda in years, so I don’t know to what degree she feels that her Black historical spec helped open doors for her — it certainly wasn’t the only thing she wrote. Anyone interested in hiring her had a range of writing samples to look at, and that’s what I’d urge you to consider.
You say your tastes run more towards horror, suspense and mystery. Write those. Remember, for the sake of argument, we’ve agreed that you’re immensely talented. Your suspenseful thriller spec will find a receptive readership no matter what your ethnicity. You don’t generally see M. Night Shyamalan referred to as an “Indian-American filmmaker.” He’s known by his work. I think you can be, too.
The Writers Guild has a Black Writers committee, whose members would obviously have more informed opinions on the situation, along with many other organizations. There are numbers to look at, particularly in terms of TV staffing, but I don’t think they’re particularly helpful in describing what your experience would be like. Are there a Catch-22 situations, where Black writers write Black-themed movies, and then only get offered other Black-themed movies? Almost certainly. But I think talent can defy expectations.
And don’t worry about being typecast until you’ve gotten a movie made.