Movie Deals

By John Gilstrap

Over the past 25 years, I have been involved in seven movie projects.  Producers have either purchased or optioned the film rights for four my books, and I have been signed five times to write screenplays.  (The math doesn’t work because I was attached to write the screenplays for two of the adaptations of my books.)  Notably, none of those films have yet to make it to the screen–except for Red Dragon, for which I was screwed out of a writer’s credit.   No, not bitter at all.  Grrr.

The movie business is sexy, it pays well, and is the most dysfunctional business model I’ve ever encountered.  It’s a miracle that any film ever gets made.  But clearly they do, so I thought I’d describe the process.

The Producer.

In the movie business, the title of producer gets thrown around a lot, and frankly, the term has a lot of different meanings.  For my purposes here, I’m not talking about any of the vanity titles.  I’m talking about the person who actually cares about the project and breaks his backside to bring it to life.

There’s an analogy between being a producer and being an author, but it’s a weak one.  I’ll give it a shot, though.

As an author, you get an idea, you develop it, write it and polish it.  When it’s done, every image is traceable to your imagination.  You are the producer, director, cinematographer, stunt coordinator, costume designer and set dresser, all rolled into one.

In a film, the producer recognizes a “literary property” that he thinks would make a good film.  So, he starts writing checks.  All those union jobs that resided in your head are positions that need to be hired to make the film.  A smart producer will write those checks with other people’s money–investors who trade their cash for a “producer” credit on the film.  If it makes money at the box office, the investors do well.  If it tanks, the real producer still gets to keep his producer’s fee.

Film Rights.

If you’re in the writing business long enough, you’re going to be approached by someone who calls herself a producer.  Nine times out of ten, the pitch will go something like, “I’ll pay you a hundred dollars for the film rights to your book.  I’ll shop it around Hollywood and if we get a deal, I’ll pay you a lot of money.”

That is your cue to hang up and run like a bunny rabbit.  There is exactly ZERO upside for you in that deal.  It’s an indicator that the producer is inexperienced, has no real contacts, and is trying to make a killing for herself off of your intellectual property.  Your response to that proposal should be, “Pay me a good sum up front for the rights to shop the book around.  If you get a deal, you’ll pay me a lot MORE money.”  I believe that the up-front money should be enough to serve as an incentive for the producer to actually do something with it.  It should hurt them if they fail to do their job.

Purchase or Option?

There are two main ways to structure your deal: An outright purchase or an option.

In a purchase, the producer buys the film rights to your book for all time.  The contract language reads, “forever and throughout the universe.”  I’m not making that up.  The structure of the purchase will be as above–money up front (“front-end” money) which is paid in full when the contract is signed, and “back-end” money (often a significantly larger sum) which will be paid on the first day of “principal photography”, which means filming actors.  Principal photography is distinct from, say, B-roll footage.  Because they own the rights outright, the producer can take as long as they want to make the movie.

In an option, the producer essentially rents the film rights for a negotiated period of time, after which the rights revert back to the author, who gets to keep the check and shop the project around to other producers.  Options have front-end and back-end money, but the front-end is generally much less than the back-end because of the additional risks posed by the ticking clock.

Options can be renewed.  In fact, every option deal I’ve seen has an automatic renewal built into the contract, with the renewal period generally being half that of the original option (and for additional money).  After that first pro-forma renewal, as the option period is about to expire, the producer can opt to extend it for a negotiated sum, but the author is under no obligation to grant the extension.

Series Writers Beware!

Every film contract, whether by option or by outright purchase, has a sticky and scary clause that grants the producer the production rights of specified characters “forever and throughout the universe.”  For an option, the character rights expire with the option–unless the film gets made, in which case the clause will lock in forever.

A good friend of mine sold the rights to the first book in what has since become a long-running series to one of the major studios.  The movie was made and did . . . okay, but not well enough in the minds of the studio execs to justify another film.  Since then, as the book series has gone on to blockbuster business worldwide, my friend has been offered many other movie deals, but since that first studio owns the rights to his series character, he can’t take any of the deals.  To make it even worse, the original studio has no desire to make another film; they’ve just set a ridiculous price tag for other producers to buy the rights to the series character.

Front-End Money is likely the only payment you’ll ever receive.  Negotiate accordingly.

Many years ago, my film agent set my head right about the movie business when he told me that for a film to make it to the screen, a million things have to go right with literally nothing going wrong.  Directors and stars drop in and out of projects, producers get distracted and lose interest.  The latest film in a genre similar to yours tanks at the box office.  Any of these things–and a thousand others–can tank a film before it’s ever made.

When negotiating a deal, treat it as if you’re never going to see another dime after you walk away from the negotiating table.

Do nothing without getting paid.

I can’t count the number of writers I’ve met who are so thrilled that a “movie producer” wants to make a movie or TV show out of their book that they essentially give away the option rights.  Producers know that authors are easy prey and they take advantage.  Don’t be a victim.

The best equivalent I can think of would be convenience store owner going to Coca-Cola and Nabisco and saying, “If you stock my shelves free of charge, I’ll pay you when I sell stuff.”  It doesn’t work that way.  Show some respect for your own intellectual property.  If producer doesn’t have at least a few thousand bucks to invest in their own business (selling intellectual properties written by others), then they’re bottom-feeders who won’t hesitate an instant to throw you under the nearest bus.

Another truth about Hollywood: Everybody lies. This was the hardest adjustment for me to make when I was working on the Warner lot for a few months.  Handshakes don’t mean a thing, and everyone knows it.  There’s not a single person in any studio or production office who isn’t scared to death that they will be fired tomorrow.  It’s the way the system works.

If it’s not in writing, it’s not real.

Don’t sign anything without consulting an agent or entertainment lawyer.

Hollywood is built on people’s dreams, half of them crushed.  All contracts I’ve seen are dictated by California law, and the lawmakers know how important the film industry is to the economy.  The standard option contracts are abusive to authors, reflecting the general disdain that Tinseltown has for writers.  There are terms of art that are unique to the business.  If you’re not careful, getting that option check might turn out to be the worst day of your professional life.

And you know what?  I’d do another deal in a heartbeat.

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

18 thoughts on “Movie Deals

  1. John –
    Thanks for highly informative, incisive, insightful and fascinating post.
    Hope a deal works out and the million things go your way soon. Be well.
    Tom Combs

  2. Thank you for this. Screenwriting is something I tried only once & didn’t find to my liking. But with sufficient motivation I’m sure I could do it again. 😎

    You said: “For an option, the character rights expire with the option–unless the film gets made, in which case the clause will lock in forever.”

    How successful are authors at getting around that? Or do they?

    Like everything regarding contracts, it sounds like a minefield & you gotta watch every step you take or you get blown up.

    • One of the famous stories is of Kevin McClory. He worked on a movie and short story with the author. He then claimed for decades full rights to the character – James Bond. Courts eventually ruled he had rights to the story that is today Thunderball. Hence, the movie Never say never again made by McClory that is a retelling of Thunderball.

  3. Thanks, Mr. Gilstrap, for this very informative post. Learned me a lot…

    The next time I see “Produced by” in the film credit, at least I’ll know what that really means.

    And if I’m ever lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time with the right story, I’ll tread carefully.

  4. At least 5 years ago I went to a talk with Daniel James Brown, such a good guy. At that time Harvey Weinstein was sitting on the production of BOYS IN THE BOAT because he was in a feud with co-producer Branaugh. He won that feud but then got immersed in the Me, Too case. Meanwhile Brown was waiting and waiting—nothing he could do. Weinstein recently went into bankruptcy, and George Clooney/MGM was able to obtain the movie rights. Finally, after all these years, BOYS IN THE BOAT is back on track.

    Unfortunately, there is another great book Weinstein is holding up. I can’t remember the name, but at this point, that author is screwed, too.

    • Back in the 1990s, a big-name producer paid over $1 million for the rights to what was then a HUGE bestseller. After the deal was inked, the author–who considered his work to be on the spectrum of literary fiction–went on an afternoon talk show, and essentially apologized for “selling out” to a commercial producer. That producer–famously a hothead with a HUGE studio deal–told the author to eff himself and shut down development. The film has never been made, and never will be because the producer has vowed never to let it leave turnaround. By running his mouth, the author denied himself and his family several million additional dollars.

      (Note how carefully I avoid naming names. The entertainment business is a very small town that loves to gossip.)

  5. Well, the good news on RED DRAGON is that you weren’t listed as Alan Smithee. Ouch!

    A friend sold her book, and she wrote the screenplay. Everything was on the ground in Ireland with an upper B level actor as the hero and B and C level actors for the secondary parts. On the first day of shooting, the producer disappeared with all the money. The various unions got everyone home, and the author had enough to fly home, too. None of the money was recovered. The turds in the publishing industry are amateurs in comparison to the movie industry.

    Right now, thanks to GAME OF THRONES, etc., is a very good time for fantasy/science fiction authors to sell on the cable channels. I saw three different major deals announced on in the last week, alone. The rest of us can but dream our day will happen. “I’m ready for my close up, Mr. De Mille.” — Norma Desmond, SUNSET BLVD.

  6. Fascinating stuff, thank you! I sent a screenplay to a friend from high school who now works for Paramount recently. Not holding my breath though!

  7. Before I began writing short stories and longer work, I tried to write a screenplay. I was super-excited about the “minimum payment” I would be guaranteed according to some Hollywood union rules or something.
    But writing a screenplay wasn’t as easy as I imagined. I had “the perfect blockbuster idea”… It included a wounded and recovering American war hero, NASCAR, family drama and romance. But putting it on paper in a coherent fashion was beyond me.
    The film industry fascinates me, and your post was very interesting. Thank you. I just ordered the book you mentioned, Hello, He Lied & Other Tales from the Hollywood Trenches. I’m sure it will be entertaining and educational.

  8. Thank you for the insider insights, John!
    Enough to make the blood curdle.
    Years ago when I first approached writing fantasy fiction as a “reality” and not just messing around, my first worry was movie rights. And not because I thought my stuff was good enough for such! Because, back then, it wasn’t! But I was watching Anne Rice suffer the initial horror of her beloved characters being put to the screen with zero input on her part. I was afraid that, even if I DID get published by one of the Big Five, my precious projects would get snapped up & regurgitated on screen in a horrible parody of itself.
    I asked every “professional” in the writing industry (who would stand still long enough for questions) about how to protect one’s project from such a fate. To a man I got back the equivalent of “…I dunno.”
    Movie rights for a writer were mythical; those that didn’t believe in the idea (like the “turds” Marilynn mentioned) didn’t want to discuss it, and the rest didn’t believe such a thing could be real.
    And then there was that book about a wizard in school, and suddenly unicorns were galloping all over place!
    So, thank you, John, for explaining how “unicorns” DO exist, but that glossy coat & shiny horn could end up being tinsel if you’re not careful!
    …and sometimes, even if you are!

  9. Well, this is an interesting. And I appreciate your thorough approach to the subject….and I just fell out of my chair. My first mystery is coming out in June, and Paramount wrote me about film rights to my book. My publisher brought me down to earth right away, saying this sort of query is not all that uncommon, but it is still good to hear of interest. Thank you for all the sign posts.

  10. Wow wow wow! I grew up reading horror and probably 40 years ago I discovered a book that was not yet a bestseller , about a serial killer who was intrigued by a painting that hung in the Brooklyn Museum. It was The Red Dragon and I still remember reading it to this day. Totally having a fan moment to learn you wrote the screenplay. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. Loved reading this. It was the highlight of my stressful ‘working remotely’ week so far!

  11. If you’d do another deal in a heartbeat, I’d guess it’s because you got some good upfront pay?!?! Based on your post, however, I’m not sure any amount of money would warm me to the vile scumbags haunting every single studio. No, I’m sure I’d be broke and homeless before I’d let Hollywood touch one of my creations!

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