Betting On A New Strategy For Moviemaking

While we haven’t signed the papers yet, I recently closed a deal to option the screen rights to Scott Free–my second movie deal in three months after a ten-year dry spell in which I couldn’t give the rights away for anything I wrote.

This is very exciting. But equally exciting is the new strategy I’ve adopted for movie sales: think small and aggressive.

Back in the day, when I sold the movie rights to Nathan’s Run and At All Costs, my agent negotiated big bucks from big studios which bought the screen rights outright, “forever and throughout the universe” (that’s actually the contract language). They made big promises but never made the movies. And I’ll never see the rights again.

With Six Minutes to Freedom and, more recently, Scott Free, I sold options for the screen rights for a limited period of time to independent producers for whom filmmaking is still considered as much an artform as a business. I don’t get paid nearly as much on the front end, but if the film gets made, it’ll be champaign time. If they don’t get made, the rights will revert to me, where in the worst case they will moulder away in my closet instead of someone else’s.

Given the above, what follows may just be rationalization on my part, but it feels legitimate to me:

The future of filmmaking lies in the hands of aggressive new producers who are tired of what studio pictures have become. I believe that the exclusion of studio films in the last Oscar race portends the future of filmmaking. There will always be a huge market for the special effects-laden summer crowd pleasers, but it’s becoming clear that compelling stories lie in the hands of the indies.

We’ve been to this place before. Remember the 1970s? That was the decade when upstarts named Spielberg, Coppola and Lucas turn Tinseltown upside down. The revolution that started in the ’60s with films like Bonnie and Clyde and In the Heat of the Night paved the way for ’70s classics like Jaws, Star Wars and The Godfather. These films set the old Hollywood model on its ear. While studio monoey was involved in all of these films, the creative momentum came from unknowns who shared a hunger for a new breed of storytelling.

But new breeds age. Spielberg and Coppola are brilliant filmmakers, just as John Huston and Alfred Hitchcock were brilliant in their day. Their enormous success brought billions of dollars to the box office and made mega stars out of countless nobodies, including themselves. But that kind of success ultimately leads to excess–not just in terms of expenses, but also in terms of leanness in storytelling. (The difference in directing technique between American Graffiti and the latest Star Wars installment is explained by more than just a limitless budget.) The studio films of today are in their own way every bit as bloated as the pageantry of Cecil B. DeMille and Joseph L. Mankiewicz from the ’50s and ’60s.

Then along comes Slumdog Millionaire. And Doubt, and The Reader. The year before, the Academy nominated Juno and Atonement for Best Picture. Story for story’s sake is mattering again, and in every case, this new revolution is being led by relative newcomers–certainly by lesser knowns.

When I speak to the young, hungry producers who bought the film rights to my books I hear something I haven’t heard from Hollywood types in a long time: Enthusiasm. If, like the others, these movies never happen, I’ll know that the effort will not have failed for lack of that one key ingredient to success.

So, what do y’all think? Discounting for the summer blockbuster spectaculars, is it possible that we’re entering a new era of big screen storytelling where character and plot matter at least as much as the intensity of the explosions?

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Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, and more.

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11 thoughts on “Betting On A New Strategy For Moviemaking

  1. Good for you, Gilstrap.

    My own experiences with Hollywood have not been good. THE LAST FAMILY was optioned ny Hallmark in the 90’s, was never made, but I did get the rights back because I made sure that if they failed to make the film, those rights would revert to me. Since I have allowed screenwriters to produce a script, but they made other films, so I still have the rights. At the present they are smoldering in my closet.

    Wishing you the best with Scott Free.

  2. My experience, like both Johns, proves what Pauline Kael once said: “Hollywood is the only town where you can die of encouragement.”

    Glad to hear of new possibilities for Mr. Gilstrap. Scott Free is very cinematic. I can see it up there on the screen.

  3. Just like the many discussions we’ve had here about books, the story must come first. There’s nothing wrong with spending a few hours out of the summer heat chomping down on some popcorn and watching the latest Will Smith loudfest, but the movies (and books) that stay in our memories are the ones in which the story touches our hearts in some way.

    Good luck with your two latest movie deals, John. Let us know when to buy our advanced tickets.

  4. Congratulations on the two deals, John. The timing must be doubly sweet after the long time between sales.

    I’d like to hope your right about story re-taking Hollywood, but I have great confidence in the ability of the powers that be to muck things up. I’ve seen it happen too many times, and not just in movies. I’m starting to believe that our hierarchies have evolved and grown to the point where the Peter Principle now aplies to anyone who reaches the top rung.

  5. I think there should be plenty of opportunities for young, hungry filmmakers to make deals with authors in today’s marketplace. If only those filmakers knew how many Authors were waiting by the phone for Hollywood to call (grin)!

  6. Congrats, John- that’s great news! I heard from a screenwriter friend that the major studios have slashed their production slate in half this year thanks to the recession, so any option is even more impressive.

  7. John~

    Your thoughts on Hollywood might translate to book publishing too. I’m not seeing too much of it yet, but maybe, with the advent of technology and the relative ease of “making a book” we will see more upstart, “indie” publishers looking to tell good stories.

    Viva la story!

  8. Several of my favourite movies are independent foreign films, especially Chinese films along the lines of “Crouching Tiger” and “Musa”, or most recently the Mongolian movie “Mongol”.
    Therefore I have instructed my agent to work the studios that made those movies to get my Alaska based anti-terrorist action thrillers to the screen.
    The male lead (styled after myself) should be Chow Yun Fat or maybe Hugh Jackman (does he speak Chinese?). The female lead, Zhang Zhi Yi.

    Of course there will be subtitles.

    In reality, I’ve got no idea the reality of getting anything with Hollywood done for real. What are the statistics of the percentage of writers whose stuff ends up optioned? And how those who actually make it to the screen.

    It seems to me that those of you got to any point other than zero are a pretty small bunch. Therefore I salute you.

  9. Congratulations John! And yes, I think there’s hope for the young hungry producers as I think Hollywood has realized that the surprise hits usually come from the ranks of the ‘independents’ not the blockbusters. I have my fingers crossed anyway as that’s what I would like to see happen in the future! I’m looking forward to easing back in my seat with my pocorn and watching your books come to life in the movie theater…

  10. Michelle’s comment made me think. (No mean feat, that.) This recession could be a good thing for story-driven movie deals. if the studios are aftriad to/can’t afford to lay out nine figures for a special effects epic, smaller, more story amd character driven films could make a comeback.

    One can only hope.

  11. I live in hope that you’re right. Although there still seem to be an awful lot of “he’s just not that into you” and “step brothers” type dross getting made.

    But congratulations and good luck

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