How Are Books Adapted for the Screen? Two Agents Demystify the Process

From Jane Friedman:

Over the last couple of years, it’s been tough not to notice the increase in dramatic rights deals in the book industry. A quick search on Publishers Marketplace reveals a new film or television deal almost every week. Publishers Weekly’s “page-to-screen” news feed is equally active, and The Hollywood Reporter recently ran a piece on How the Publishing World Is Muscling In on Hollywood Deals.

These deals don’t appear to be limited to a particular genre or category. Streaming services and film producers are expressing an interest in a wide range of book properties—fiction and nonfiction for both adult and children’s audiences. And from the outset, it looks as though they are inviting authors—bestselling and debut—to take part in the adaptation process, at least to an extent.

During a PEN America event I attended a few months ago, Your Option on Options, one of the speakers noted that the rise in streaming companies, coupled with the pandemic, has made today a golden age for IP content. Curious to find out if this is true, I reached out to Allison Hunter of Trellis Literary Management and Jennifer Weltz of Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, both of whom represent authors whose work has been or is being adapted for the screen. As with all my literary agent Q&As, neither knew the other’s identity until after they provided their answers to my questions below.

Why don’t we start by defining what a book-to-screen option is. Is it correct to say that this is an agreement whereby a producer is granted the rights to adapt an author’s book for television or film?

Is there a standard fee, term, or renewal process for options, or do these vary widely in the same way that book advances vary?

How does an option differ from a shopping agreement, and what is more common today?

Allison Hunter: Yes, an option is an exclusive right to shop the book to producers, studios, directors, writers, and actors to see if anyone is interested in turning the book into a movie, TV show or limited series. Pre-pandemic, options were usually for a 12-month period, but now we’re seeing more 18- and 24-month options, as it’s taking longer to get projects made. Option fees do vary widely, from the very low (a few thousand dollars) to the high (hundreds of thousands).

A shopping agreement similarly asks for exclusivity but doesn’t offer any payment in exchange. It’s a way to test the waters to see if there is any interest in the property without a financial commitment. Shopping agreements are generally for a shorter time period than option agreements (often six months), because there is no money offered. They are becoming more and more common, especially when it’s not a competitive situation.

Jennifer Weltz: Yes, that is correct, and there are no standard fees, terms, or renewal processes for options. These vary even more than book advances. But I would say that terms usually aren’t shorter than three or six months and aren’t longer than 24 months; they can be 6 months, 9 months, 12 months, 18 months. It’s more important to ask: How new is the book? How desired is the book? And if a producer wants to have it for a long period of time, how is the author getting compensated for that exclusive time with the book?

A shopping agreement has become more and more popular with producers because this involves no or little money. Also, the producer is already attached to the project, which gives them the safety of knowing you can’t cut them out of the deal. If you’re doing a shopping agreement, I would encourage you to do it for as short a period of time as possible. It’s basically saying that the producer has limited time to make the magic happen, and if not, you both part ways.

Does your agency partner with television and film co-agents, or do you pitch books directly to producers, production companies, studios, or streaming services?

Do you attempt to sell dramatic rights for all the books your agency represents, or only those that seem well suited for adaptation? In what cases, if any, would the publisher retain and exploit these rights?

AH: We partner with co-agents, who have the relationships in Hollywood that we do not. Our goal is to find co-agents for all narrative projects, fiction and nonfiction. We never allow the publisher to retain film rights. We consider those rights extremely valuable, and only in very rare cases can a publisher make a better deal for film rights than our co-agents can. We want to give our authors as much input and control in potential film adaptations as possible, which is why we always prefer to handle those rights.

JW: We do both. We work with some amazing co-agents, but we are an agency that’s almost 45 years old with a huge list of books, and not all co-agents are aware of some of our books. For example, just today, I had somebody contact me about a series of books from the late eighties or early nineties that had reverted, and they wanted to know if rights were available for film. We deal directly with producers who contact us directly, and we negotiate our deals in-house. But if we’re pitching them a book, we have wonderful co-agents we refer them to.

The publisher does not retain film rights. If a publisher is attempting to obtain film rights, question whether you should be doing a deal with that publisher. Sometimes that’s your only option and they have you over a barrel. Obviously, there are exceptions to every rule, such as publishers who have a first-look deal with a studio; there’s nothing wrong with this if it doesn’t bind you to the terms. But we retain film rights for almost all the books we have ever done in 45 years.

We sell dramatic rights for all our books, but not all books lend them themselves to film. The ones that we actively go out and try and sell tend to be ones that might lead to a series or to a film documentary. This means fiction as well as nonfiction books work well for the screen.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

1 thought on “How Are Books Adapted for the Screen? Two Agents Demystify the Process”

  1. May I respectfully suggest that the complete absence of context and false universality presented in the OP are huge red flags? Of course, all I can do is suggest because [redacted} and [redacted], not to mention [redacted]. That is, those of us who know in detail what’s unsatisfactory about the OP’s description — particularly the description of “shopping agreement,” which caused a serious coffee-snort, but that’s far from unique — can’t give the details that refute the received wisdom because those details are confidential.

    Here’s the biggest hint, though: Find the experienced-with-IP-matters attorney (mere “credential” is merely the first step — don’t bring me a commercial real property lease or ERISA dispute!) in the OP. Let’s just say that the glib description of the legal and practical differences between an “option” and a “shopping agreement” would get a failing grade in 1L Contracts and leave it at that…

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