There are a lot of stories created by great authors who have yet to see their books made into movies. This is due in part to the Hollywood standards used to determine what stories would translate well to the screen. Another factor might be based on the dread many authors feel when handing over their title to be reworked into a film format, which may include a change in style, content or theme.
However, most authors who are willing to allow a trusted production team to alter their story may have no idea how to get their book read by the right company. There is no secret to finding the right production company, except for hard diligent research.
A quick dive into research will provide a list of thousands of production companies. As of the writing of this article there are 6 big studio production companies listed. The independents make up the rest and include 242 production companies in Chicago, 66 in Seattle, 516 labeled as Christian, and on the various lists go. These lists do not include companies started for the purpose of making and releasing one specific film.
Once the right companies are found, the story needs to pass the filtering systems to be considered. There are 10 things that need to be in the story to make it past the first cut of titles being considered:
1. PROACTIVE HERO. The main character or the protagonist must be active and the one driving the story. He must be motivated and driven to make decisions, rather than having things happen to him. The character must grow through his journey and overcome whatever held him back in the opening of the story.
2. UNIVERSAL STORY. The story must be high concept and understandable by the average person and be based on common experiences, but from a unique viewpoint. The story needs to be able to capture the attention of the audience, regardless of their specific interests in the issues within the story.
3. FLAWED PROTAGONIST. The main character must be flawed in a way that reveals elements of the human condition that others can relate to. The character must face struggles that he must battle through to achieve his goals. By the end of the story, he needs to figure out a way to turn his flaw into strength, which is the tool he’ll use to save the day or accomplish his goal.
4. GREAT ACTION PLOTLINE. The story must have forward movement created by physical action or life changing decisions. This movement must be strong enough to carry the reader through every aspect of the story. A great action plot is one that can be understood with the audio turned off or the dialog deleted.
5. STORY WITH 7-8 SET PIECES. Set pieces are those iconic scenes that are designed to have an obvious imposing effect on the audience. They are the scenes in a film that are ideal for trailers, which stand out and say this film is unique and special. These types of scenes create buzz, driving people to pay out good money to see the movie. Rarely are films made, let alone promoted, without these conversational moments being embedded into a story.
6. STRUCTURE USING 3, 7 OR 8 ACTS. Most Hollywood films use the three-act structure, but MOWs (Movie of the Week) are further broken down into 7 or 8 acts depending on the network – The difference being in the structure of the first act. If the story is not able to fit this structure, it won’t be purchased or if purchased, it will have significant changes made to it.
7. VISUAL STORYLINE. Motion pictures are designed for movement. While that sounds ridiculously obvious, there are many people who want their talking head story to be on the silver screen. If the story is dialog driven, then it should be considered for radio or theater. If it is thought driven, it is better off staying as a book. But, if it has action, movement or some semblance of motion, it should work on the big screen. The story must be filled with visual action.
8. RAISE AN OVERARCHING QUESTION. It is important in film to have a question raised in the audience’s mind to keep their attention and drive their desire to see the next scene. If the story has numerous scene-by-scene questions answered throughout the main character’s journey and an overarching question that isn’t answered until the climax, then the story is ideal for film.
9. ENTERTAINMENT VALUE. Audiences flock to the theater to have fun, laugh, cry, be scared, stimulated, and other emotionally based forms of entertainment. Books that cause a person to laugh or talk out loud, or draw a tear are truly entertaining and have a shot at being made into a film.
10. PROFESSIONAL AUTHOR. The author needs to be audience minded and professional in his approach. The author, who is more concerned about his content, than the audience, would not be a good fit. The option agreement is a business proposition that takes a story and translates it to a completely different medium, it is not a personal agreement that takes someone’s baby away from them and raises it to be something they didn’t want it to be. If the author can’t understand that difference, then movies are not for him.
Those authors who fit all 10 of the above criteria will find their story selling for top dollar. Some authors will find their books being requested often due to a large number of the above items matching their book, but might not ever see a movie made. And, other authors will never be asked because their stories never matched any of the criteria.
I know one author whose writing is perfectly situated to receive numerous options, but has never had one make it to the screen. He got wise to the circumstances and raised his up front fees, knowing his back end fees were useless. The last time I talked to him he was making about six figures a year and yet, he never had a film made. He always laughed when he shared that no studio had ever ruined one of his stories, but he was rich because of their desires to do so.
Since independent companies develop most options, most authors never see six figures. In fact, they usually laugh at how small their royalty checks are. However, the authors are very excited at the huge jump in book sales the movie creates. I’ve known authors that have seen 2X their sales with the release of the film as well as 10X and 20X, depending on the genre.
One author sold around 40K units a year and after her movie released sales jumped to 150K a year. The notoriety she received from the film caused her next title to sell 350K units in the first 6 months without a film deal. Another author sold 10K books a year and his film deal shot sales up to over 1MM copies in 18 months.
Option agreements are valuable to many authors, but some prefer to write the screenplay themselves and find they lack the mastery of the craft needed for sales. Most screenwriters write numerous screenplays for years before their skill level hits a place of value for production companies. Authors eventually learn that book writing uses a significantly different set of skills, which leaves them working for years trying to develop the new techniques. Other authors realize that they’re core abilities are in writing novels and they leave the screenwriting to the experienced.