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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