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Memories from my TV/Movie Experience

19 November 2018

From Rick Riordan:

Recently I asked you guys what kind of team you’d like to see in charge if a Disney-led Percy Jackson reboot were to happen. Again, I have to warn you this is completely HYPOTHETICAL, just wishful thinking, not based on any concrete plans in the pipeline. Even if some reboot happened someday, I would have ZERO control over it, because those rights were signed away before the first PJO book was even published and, like most authors, my contract was very standard in that Hollywood controls all things and all decisions about the movie. The author may or may not be consulted, but the movie folks have final say on everything. There is a widespread myth (ha!) that authors have much more control over movie decisions than we actually do. Even the most powerful authors (yes, the ones you are thinking of right now) have WAY less influence and control than you think they do. Nobody talks about that though, because when a movie is just coming out it is in the studio’s interest for it to SOUND like everybody was very involved and pleased with the final product. In reality, the best we authors can hope for is a good team effort, where everyone gets along, has the same vision, and works together well. Sometimes, that happens . . .

Thinking about reboots even hypothetically made me remember the process I went through with those Percy Jackson movies. I was indeed consulted at some points, about some things. I did my best to give feedback that would help. At the time, obviously, I couldn’t really share any behind-the-scenes information with you guys, the readers, but since these conversations are now almost ten years old (yikes!), I thought you might like to take a look at some of the correspondence and suggestions I sent to the producers while they were planning THE LIGHTNING THIEF movie. I hope this will give you a sense of what I was trying to do behind the scenes. Whether/how much the producers listened to my ideas, I will let you be the judge. As I’ve said many times, once I saw the final script and saw what they were doing on the set, I realized I had to step away for my own peace of mind. I never saw either of the movies in their final form. What I know of them, and how I judge them, is based entirely on my experiences with the producers and on the final scripts. The SEA OF MONSTERS movie is a whole ‘nother story, but it followed basically the same process.

. . . .

Should a reboot happen some day, in some fashion, I would hope, like you, that it would be a great adaptation that is faithful to the books and fun to watch. The fact that Disney has now acquired the rights from Fox may be hopeful news, but it doesn’t change my contractual powers (which are zilch). Still, I’ve let it be known that I would be happy to consult and advise IF they want me and IF the new project was undertaken by a completely different team than the one which made the movies. I think that would be important. Fresh eyes. Fresh ideas. Hopefully people who know and are passionate about the books. I have no desire to go through my first experience again and see the same results. If I felt like that was going to be the case, I would have to stay away from the project completely. In the future, if some project actually does get underway, I may not be able to comment on it for contractual reasons, but you can tell how I’m feeling about it by what I do or don’t say. Am I talking about it? Promoting it? Sharing cool things? I am probably happy. Am I completely ignoring it and never mentioning it on social media? Yeah . . . that’s probably not a good sign. For instance, check out my website, rickriordan.com. Do you see any indication there that the Percy Jackson movies ever existed? No. No, you do not.

. . . .

From January 2009 note to producers

Hi XXXXX,

I understand that a decision has been made to age the main characters in the film to seventeen. As no one wants to see this film succeed more than I do, I hope you’ll let me share a couple of reasons why this is a bad idea from a money-making point of view.

First, it kills any possibility of a movie franchise. I don’t know if you or your staff have had the chance to read farther than The Lightning Thief in the Percy Jackson series, but there are four other volumes. The series is grounded on the premise that Percy must progress from age twelve to age sixteen, when according to a prophecy he must make a decision that saves or destroys the world. I assume that XXXX would at least like to keep open the option of sequels assuming the first movie does well. Starting Percy at seventeen makes this undoable. I’m also sure that XXXXX (for) the first Harry Potter movie, some in the studio argued for making the characters older to appeal to a teen audience. Fortunately, they took the long view and stayed true to the source material, which allowed them to grow a lucrative franchise. This would’ve been impossible if they’d started Harry at seventeen. The same principle applies here.

Second, it alienates the core audience. I’m guessing those book sale numbers are important to XXXX because you’re hoping all those kids show up at the theater. The core readership for Percy Jackson is age 9-12. There are roughly a million kids that age, plus their families, who are dying to see this film because they want to see the pictures in their imagination brought to life. Many of these kids have read the books multiple times and know every detail. They are keenly aware that Percy is twelve in the first book. By making the characters seventeen, you’ve lost those kids as soon as they see the first movie trailer. You signal that this is a teen film, when the core audience is families. I understand that you want to appeal to teens because they are a powerful demographic, and conventional wisdom says that teens will not see movies about kids younger than themselves. Harry Potter proved this wrong, but aside from that, deviating so significantly from the source material risks pleasing no one – teens, who know the books are meant for younger kids, and the younger kids, who will be angry and disappointed that the books they love have been distorted into a teen movie. I haven’t even seen the script yet, so I don’t know how much the story has changed, but I fear the movie will be dead on arrival with a seventeen-year-old lead. (At this time I had no idea who might be cast)

I’ve spent the last four years touring the country, talking about the movie. I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of kids. They are all excited about the movie, but they are also anxious. Most of these kids have no idea which studio produces which film, but everywhere I go, they say the same thing: Please don’t let them do to the Lightning Thief what they did to XXXX(another movie from the same producers) Don’t let them change the story. These kids are the seed audience for the movie. They are the ones who will show up first with their families, then tell their friends to go, or not go, depending on how they liked it. They are looking for one thing: How faithful was the movie to the book? Make Percy seventeen, and that battle is lost before filming even begins.

Thanks for letting me say my piece. I care too much about the project to see it fail.

Link to the rest at Rick Riordan

Fantasy/SciFi, Movies/TV, YA

17 Comments to “Memories from my TV/Movie Experience”

  1. I believe JK Rowling attached herself as executive producer, allowing more creative control over the projects. This would likely have been done at the contract signing stage.

    • Rowling’s book contract was for print only.
      She retained all other rights.
      She also refused to license anything unless it was under her terms which were very restrictive. (Limited merchandising, casting appropval, etc).

      Of course, that was for Harry Potter, worldwide phenomenon.
      Not everybody has that kind of leverage. But one reason she had the leverage is because she didn’t give it up early. Or ever.

      She had the power of NO! and refused to sign “industry standard” contracts.

    • Being an Executive Producer doesn’t mean you have any creative control at all. It means you are getting paid most of your money on the backend, as a percentage of the profits.

      Most people get to be executive producers because they are brining money to the table to fund the film, in exchange for a back-end percentage.

      Others negotiate Executive Producer status in their contracts in order to get a back-end percentage in lieu of being paid upfront.

      Sometimes Executive Producers are people who previously were producing the project, and it got bought out by another company, but they retain a back end percentage.

      The only Executive Producers who get to exercise any creative control all the ones who own, or run, the studio producing the movie. People like Kevin Feige, who actually runs Marvel Studios. But its not having an executive producer credit that gives him creative control/input, its his title as President of Marvel Studios that gives him creative control.

      Now, that doesn’t mean that someone who negotiated an executive producer deal didn’t ALSO negotiate some sort of creative input/control in their contract. But that would be a separate line in their contract, and not tied at all to their role as Executive Producer.

  2. This is beautifully assessed and discussed by Rick. What’s horrible is what’s read between the lines, the idiocy of what Hollywood was doing to a highly successful series of books in one film. Once upon a time I had a similar experience with a script I’d written about a profound birth defect. The producer had eventually twisted this script about medical malpractice to something that was set in an ice fishing camp. ISYN.

    • Yow!
      That’s NIGHTFALL/STARSHIP TROOPERS BAD!

      Reminds me of the story of the 1990’s FLASH series and the CBS execs who wanted Bilson and DeMeo to switch out the red superhero costume for a running suit and save SFX money by filming the running scenes as slow motion. At which point they asked if they really want Glen Larson and Universal to sue CBS for ripping off THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN. (Which itself bore little resemblance to Martin Caidin’s CYBORG.)

  3. If Hollywood options a biography of George Washington, the chances are pretty good that the final film will be the story of a single mother in Washington, D.C. in the 1970s, or the story of young grunge musicians in Seattle, Washington in the 1990s, or possibly even a George Gobel biopic.

  4. Rick Riordan has good reason to be unhappy but, given Hollywood’s history, no reason to be surprised. He was lucky that as much of his plot got in as it did, after all look at what happened to Starship Troopers.

    Anyway, as a typical movie only has the narrative content of a long short story (or a short novella), adaptations are rarely going to satisfy anyone who liked the book. The best you can hope for is a simplification where what’s discarded does not distort the original’s core narrative. Of course, it does not help that film directors overrule writers and scriptwriters often assume that they are more talented than the original author (hence pointless plot changes in Agatha Christie adaptations for example)

  5. Was the movie a financial success?

    • The first movie (2010) probably was, the second (2013) probably was not, comparing worldwide grosses to their production budget. Though both met the crude metric of worldwide grosses greater than two and one half times production budget, the second was very close. I guess they figured a third movie would have continued the downward trend.

      • Hollywood rule of thumb is good sequels gross three-quarters the original box. That’s one reason the studios love superhero flicks; if the first doesn’t bomb outright, the sequels will tend to do better.

      • Both were slightly profitable: Worldwide grosses in the $200M range for production costs in the $90-95m. Plus disk sales and home video.
        That despite the…divergence…

        Easy to see why Disney would be interested; the tween demographic is one they routinely exploit successfully. They can easily double or triple the take with slightly higher production costs.

        (Ant-man made $520M global off $130M costs.)

  6. I was just talking about this the other day, when you want to exploit a concept and wring every penny out of a concept..

    Rules of Story

    Buy the cow, milk the cow, milk the cow ’til it’s dry, then butcher it for the meat & hide, then boil the bones to make soup, then grind up the bones to feed the roses.

    Once the bones have entered the soil, the cycle repeats, birthing new cows, then ultimately feeding the bones back into the soil again, constantly mutating with each iteration.

    Look at the Vampire concept as example.

    You had the original Dracula, the filmed stage play with Bela Lugosi, with all of the sequels that followed, where they literally went too far down the road of milking that cow.

    Then variations of Dracula sprang forth with various levels of success, staying close to the original, followed by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Vampire Diaries, etc… Each variation plays with the theme, runs its course, then the bones are ground up to feed the Roses completing the cycle, preparing the ground for another day.

    Look at the original Mummy as an example of how not to do things.

    The original with Boris Karloff was haunting, brilliant. Then the sequels wasted the theme by having the Mummy forever as a shuffling bandage wrapped figure.

    The Mummy series with Brendan Fraser started well, capturing that Boris Karloff feel, then collapsed in the third movie, killing the series. The actual series could have lasted at least six movies, repeating the first two movies two more times. Each time the crooked Uncle would add to the mix.

    – The way to rescue the Fraser series is to fix the glitch created in the third, thus you get five movies.

    First movie: Two people come together with a common need but no real respect for the other. It ends with them coming together, defeating the enemy, falling in love.

    Second movie: They are now a couple with a kid who is kidnapped and they move heaven and earth to save him.

    Third movie: The son is grown up and meets a girl with her own agenda, and the father is along as a useless fifth wheel. The son and the girl win in the end and fall in love, the father was always in the way.

    Proposed Fourth movie: The son and the girl are married with twins, a boy and a girl. The twins are kidnapped, and the parents move heaven and Earth to save them.

    Proposed Fifth movie: The twins are grown up and get involved trying to save the Uncle who is aways getting in trouble. They end up back at Shangri La where the grandmother came from. They find the High lama, who is Captain Jack Sparrow[*]. He convinces the crooked Uncle to be the next High Lama. It takes a rogue to be in charge to defend the valley from outside forces. Captain Jack transcends, cheating Death, and the Uncle takes over. The twins help seal the valley until it is safe to contact the world again in another age.

    [*] Captain Jack Sparrow went as far away from the Sea as he could so that he would not end up back in Davey Jones Locker when he dies again, and in the process finds a way to cheat Death.

    BTW, Having Captain Jack as High Lama does not eliminate more Pirate movies, this is just where he ends up hundreds of years later.

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