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Many writers dream of seeing their novel or nonfiction book turned into a movie. But much like trying to write in a genre with which one is unfamiliar, it can be a bit of a culture shock to shift from the publishing industry to the film industry.
The pathway that writers have traditionally taken to break into the book publishing industry is pretty straightforward: Write book -> get agent -> agent gets book deal. Of course, there are increasing variations on this method—thanks to the self-publishing and digital publishing explosion—but for the most part, the traditional channel has been pretty well-established.
In the film industry, however, the path to getting a book turned into a movie is not so “standard” or typical. There are many different inroads into the movie industry—not all of which are familiar to someone whose main business is putting words onto a page.
If you want to turn your book into a movie, whether you’ve written a novel or a memoir, be prepared to start doing some legwork, trusting your instincts, and feeling your way into the movie biz with lots of research, professionalism, and hard work.
Turn Your Book Into A Movie: Choices To Be Made
Choosing what to pitch: book or screenplay?
People in the film industry want to know one thing: “Is it a movie?”
By pitching your book out of the gate, you have the chance to show prospective producers your project in its purest form. If they can “see” the movie adaptation of your book just from reading it, you’re in good shape. An interested producer will make an offer to option your intellectual property (more on that later) and eventually hire professional writers to adapt the book into a screenplay.
However, not all books are written in a way that can immediately call to mind how it will look on screen, which may cause people to turn it down.
If that’s the case, you might want to consider getting your book turned into a screenplay first and then shop it around. This will help agents and producers visualize the final product in a format with which they’re more familiar. Plus, if you’re uncomfortable with the idea of a studio-hired writer taking over your story, skipping forward to pitching a screenplay will help you maintain more creative power.
Which brings us to the next choice you’ll have to make…
Adapting your book into a screenplay: Hire or DIY?
If you have a substantial budget, you can hire a professional screenwriter to turn your book into a screenplay for you. In general, hiring a writer who has a stellar reputation in the industry for writing your kind of movie may help your story impress the right people, and gives you the ability to choose exactly who you think is right for the job.
If you don’t have enough money to hire someone to write your screenplay, however—or if you simply don’t trust another writer with your baby—you can take a crack at adapting it yourself. But keep in mind: Screenwriting and book writing are two totally different animals, not just in structure, but in execution as well. While prose depends on well-written narrative to create images in the readers’ heads, a screenplay relies heavily on dialogue and action to tell the story with little to no narrative text in between.
Make sure to do your homework, read a lot of screenwriting books, and maybe take a few classes before you attempt to make the jump. You can also hire a consultant to help ensure that you’re taking your book from text to screen in an effective way. Read more: Five Resources for Screenwriters.
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Should you sell your project or option it?
Here is where the movie biz lingo starts to kick in. If you’re shopping your book’s film rights around, you have to wait until someone offers to option it. If you’re pitching a screenplay version thereof, there may come a time when you’ll have to choose between selling and optioning.
Not sure what any of that means? Don’t worry—we’ve got you covered.
Say you have a great book and have secured an agent who, in addition to pitching it to publishers, can connect you to a film agent or help you shop the film rights directly. A producer might come along and offer to option it. In this scenario, you would basically be agreeing to give this person exclusive rights to the possibility of getting your book made into a movie. The length of an option is typically 12 to 18 months, often with the option to extend.
This can get a bit tricky, depending on how reliable the producer is. There are a few steps between the book being optioned and the film getting made, but realistically speaking, the former doesn’t always guarantee the latter.
Worst case scenario: A producer options your book for a year and leaves it to collect dust on a shelf. Or even worse—the entire project gets stuck in developmental hell!
Best case scenario: A producer options your book for a year and gathers enough energy around the project to secure reputable screenwriters to adapt it, investors to fund it, and a director to make it all happen. There are few hiccups along the way and voilà—the movie gets made!
Just keep in mind that during the time your project is optioned, no one else can buy or option it—no matter how much money they’re offering.
If you’ve skipped forward to adapting your nonfiction book or novel into a screenplay yourself, it’s still possible for it to get optioned—or you might be able to outright sell it. Remember, you should always consult an attorney before trying to sell your book’s film rights or adapted screenplay. You’ll want to make sure the contract will result in you getting paid fairly—regardless of whether the movie is a box-office smash, is a flop, or never gets made at all.
For more about how much a screenplay can (and should) sell for, check out this great article by entertainment attorney Jesse Rosenblatt.
Some Other Options To Consider
Although the aforementioned scenarios are quite common in the book-to-movie industry, they’re not the only ways to get things done. Consider some of these alternatives:
Hit the best seller lists. If sales figures demonstrate that your book has caught the attention of readers on a grand scale, you’re much more likely to see your story optioned. However, given Hollywood’s current economic climate, you’ll really need to have a 50 Shades of Grey type of literary phenomena to get producers to fight over the ability to option.
Take the festival route. Let’s say you decided to adapt your nonfiction book or novel into a screenplay yourself, but you’re not crazy about the idea of getting involved with Hollywood just yet. Try entering it into a few film festival script competitions. It costs money to enter (not unlike contests that literary journals hold), but making it far can earn your money back—and possibly get potential buyers’ eyes on it.
Make it yourself. This is a little far-fetched if you’re solely a writer, as the art of filmmaking is no walk in the park. However, if you have enough money and the right training (or have friends who do), you could always take the indie approach and produce the movie version of your book yourself. Only attempt this if you know what you’re doing—otherwise, leave it to the professionals.
Turn Your Book Into A Movie
In any business, it’s important to make great contacts. If you’ve got big dreams of being a Hollywood blockbuster writer, then it may be time to launch yourself full-on into the Tinsel Town community.
But if you’re primarily a BOOK writer and hope to stay that way, your decision to tell your story in book form doesn’t mean there’s no chance of your book making its way into film. Just write the best story that you can—one that captures people’s imaginations in a big way—and you’ve already taken your first, most important steps.
Writer’s Relief can’t help you turn your book into a movie directly, but we may be able to help you find a literary agent, who in turn can help you get published by a major publishing house. That may lead to an increased likelihood of success if you then try to turn your book into a movie.
Read more about turning your book into a movie in our interview with Industry Influencer Michael Hauge.