The Movie Deal

When I was asked to join this great group of writers to blog on a regular basis, I bet they didn’t think I’d kick things off by writing about movies. But I’d guess my Kill Zone colleagues would agree that one of the most commonly asked questions we get as writers is, “When is your book going to be made into a movie?”
This very question came up in my panel session at the Northwest Bookfest today. For better or worse, movies are more universal cultural touchstones than books. They’re easier to consume and many more people have seen them. When someone at a writers’ conference asks me what my books are like, I usually mention that they would appeal to readers of Clive Cussler or James Rollins. But at a party I say that they’re akin to an Indiana Jones or James Bond movie because I can always be confident that people will get the comparison.
When readers turn the tables and ask about my books becoming movies, I have a hard time formulating a pithy answer. Although I struggle to come up with a meaningful response, it’s flattering for readers to ask. It means that they thought my adventure novel was cinematic in its action, descriptions, and pacing and that they want to spend more time with the characters. It’s the ultimate expression of success for a book to be deemed worthy of the silver screen, but for a novelist the situation is complicated.
A good movie can help cement an author’s career, such as it did with John Grisham’s The Firm, which was bought by Hollywood before he even sold the literary rights. It could also faceplant along the lines of Clive Cussler’s Sahara or Janet Evanovich’s One for the Money. I’d risk the flop for a shot at a hit. The problem is that I don’t know when or if a film will ever happen. While I’m in full control of my writing, I’m a bystander when it comes to having the book made into a movie.
Hollywood has a well-deserved reputation for being a fickle town. The first time I got a call from my film rights agent that a production company was interested in one of my books, I was so pumped that I was already planning what to wear to the premiere before I’d even hung up the phone. Then came a whole bunch of nothin’. I have no idea what went on behind the scenes, but I never heard another peep. By the third time I got a nibble from a producer, I didn’t get excited because I understood that it was just the start of a long process, one which could get sidetracked at any point.
First comes the option. Although the rights can be bought outright, most books are purchased in two- or three-year options, during which the producer has the sole right to make the movie of your book. A novelist won’t get paid for the full amount of the contract until the day principal photography begins (because movies can be and have been canceled at any point up to that moment). However, if the movie isn’t made during that period, then the option rights revert back to the writer, who can sell them again. I know many writers who’ve optioned the same movie rights repeatedly for a decade or more, and the film still hasn’t been made.
That’s because the next step is finding a director, screenwriter, and actors to attach to the film.  If it’s got those, the movie is probably on the fast track to being filmed. If not, it’s likely to end up in “development hell,” the no-man’s land where projects can languish while a script is rewritten multiple times to fix story, budget, or casting problems. For example, the movie Salt was originally supposed to star Tom Cruise until he bowed out and the script had to be completely rewritten for Angelina Jolie in the same role.
When people ask me who I think would be cast as the main characters in my books, I usually tell them it’s somebody who is currently in high school. Katherine Heigl, who played Stephanie Plum in One for the Money, was sixteen years old when that book was written, and Matthew McConaughey from Saharawas four when the Dirk Pitt series was created. Besides, casting is notoriously difficult. Who can possibly see Mickey Rourke as Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop, Will Smith as Neo in The Matrix, or Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones, even though they were all the first choices for those iconic roles?
My agent has another challenge in selling my books to Hollywood. When I write, I don’t have a budget. I can destroy hundreds of cars, blow up buildings with abandon, place scenes in exotic locations, and employ a cast of thousands, all of which cost me nothing but would translate into substantial outlays in a film for elaborate stunts, difficult location shoots, and expensive computer graphics. I’m sure one of the reasons that my books haven’t been made into movies yet is that they would cost two hundred million dollars to produce.
For me, the original question remains unanswerable. No film is on the foreseeable horizon, though it would be a blast to see my words come to life on the big screen. I will always be open to getting those nibbles from Hollywood. I do, however, have one condition: even if it’s as a henchman who dies in the first ten minutes, I want a speaking role in the movie. If it’s a flop, at least I’d get a Screen Actors Guild card out of it.

Jason Starr’s Hollywood Glossary

by Jason Starr

TKZ is thrilled to host Jason Starr today, an award-winning author who has written everything from graphic novels to novels to screenplays. His first series just hit bookstores this week, leading off with THE PACK, of which PW says, “Manhattan receives a lustrous varnish of black, black humor in this sly urban fantasy thriller.” His last thriller, PANIC ATTACK, was recently optioned by David Fincher (yes, THAT David Fincher, director of THE SOCIAL NETWORK and SE7EN), with OCEAN’S ELEVEN screenwriter Ted Griffin attached to write the screenplay. Here, the aptly named “Starr” offers helpful tips to navigating the Hollywood quagmire…

It’s widely known that in Hollywood people very rarely say what they are actually thinking, so the next time you interact with any agents or producers this glossary may come in handy. Here are some comments you might hear during your next trip to Hollywood, along with their actual meanings.

HOLLYWOOD: “Everyone’s really excited about your script.”
TRANSLATION: “I haven’t brought up the script with anybody yet except my girlfriend, but she thought the concept sounded pretty dope.”

HOLLYWOOD: “I like your script.”
TRANSLATION: “I think I read part of that script a couple of weekends ago. Didn’t I? Eh, maybe, maybe not. Wait, yeah, I did read it. I can’t remember much about it, but I think I remember not hating it.”

HOLLYWOOD: “I love your script.”
TRANSLATION: “I read your script. It was okay. I think there’s a five percent or less chance any studio will want to do it, but what the hell? If you’ll let me go out with it for free, I’ll give it a shot.”

HOLLYWOOD: “I’m obsessed with your script.”
TRANSLATION: “I like your script. I think it’s pretty good. I’m not sure anybody else will like it, but I actually think there’s a decent shot of other people liking it.”

HOLLYWOOD: “I have notes.”
TRANSLATION: “This script sucks. I pretty much hated everything about it. Did you really write this garbage? I have no idea what you can possibly come up with to salvage this total mess but I’ll have my assistant come up with some notes to send you.”

HOLLYWOOD: “We’re approaching Leo.”
TRANSLATION: “I’m going to discuss the idea of Leo, or some other A-list names we have no chance in hell of actually getting, with some other people here. Maybe I’ll do that sometime next week? Or maybe not. It’s probably a waste of time anyway.”

HOLLYWOOD : “Leo’s people are interested.”
TRANSLATION: “I think Leo’s name came up at that party at Cannes two weeks ago. Didn’t it? I don’t know, I was pretty wasted that night. Also, I think I was talking about like six projects at once, all bigger than yours, and I can’t really remember if I mentioned Leo in connection with your project or something else, but people totally seemed into the idea of trying to attach Leo to something. Yeah, this definitely sounds like a good idea.”

HOLLYWOOD: “Leo’s attached.”
TRANSLATION: “No one has actually made an offer to Leo yet. Leo’s manager is into the idea of Leo taking this role, but his agent will probably talk him out of it. Maybe I can figure out a way to get to Leo directly. Do you know anybody?”

HOLLYWOOD: “I want to make your movie.”
TRANSLATION: “I really do want to make your movie, but I’m broke and I’ve burned a lot of bridges lately. I think it would be a cool project to shop around though. Can I have a free option?”

HOLLYWOOD: “I want to make your movie in the fall.”
TRANSLATION: “Yeah, I want to make your movie in the fall. I want to make all my movies in the fall. You have fifty million dollars to lend me?”

HOLLYWOOD: “I’m going to make your move in the fall.”
TRANSLATION: “I’m not going to make your movie in the fall. I can guarantee you that.”

HOLLYWOOD: “There’s heat on me.”
TRANSLATION: “Fox hired me to write something five years ago. My deal has long since run out and I’m desperate to get back in the game.”

HOLLYWOOD: “I lost my offices at Fox.”
TRANSLATION: “Fox fired my sorry ass.”

HOLLYWOOD: “We have access to German money.”
TRANSLATION: “We don’t have a development deal anywhere and we have access to no money. But I met some guy from a German fund last year at that party at Sundance, and maybe if he’s still with that fund and they’re still interested in new projects they might want to do this. It’s worth a phone call anyway, right? Or, the hell with it, I’ll just have my assistant email the guy sometime next week. Hopefully by then you’ll forget this conversation ever took place.”

HOLLYWOOD: “It’s a go picture.”
TRANSLATION: “We’re hoping they greenlight this thing soon, but we haven’t heard anything yet and we’re all starting to seriously panic.”

HOLLYWOOD: “The movie’s been greenlit.”
TRANSLATION: “I hope the movie’s been greenlit. But everybody’s such a liar in this town, I hope people aren’t lying to me, but they probably are.”

HOLLYWOOD: “The movie is shooting.”
TRANSLATION: “The movie is shooting.” *

*This may mean the movie is actually shooting, but must be confirmed by an actual visit to the set.

JASON STARR is the author of numerous novels including THE PACK, the start of a new series, which is on sale now in hardcover and e-book from Penguin/Ace. He has several film and TV projects in development, including adaptations of his recent books THE FOLLOWER and PANIC ATTACK. For more info check out Connect with Jason on Facebook and Twitter.