Tuesday 12 November 2019

Hollywood and Hollywouldn'ts - your options as an author.

Let's start with my news, and then explain it.

The Broken Empire trilogy has been optioned for TV (I still call it TV, though it might be a Netflix series etc).

And it looks very likely that The Book of the Ancestor and the Impossible Times trilogies will also complete the option process very soon.


What does this mean?

If you're even a mildly successful author it seems, from my experience, that rather surprisingly, Hollywood will come calling.

Obviously my experience is limited to what's happened to me and a few anecdotes from fellow authors - but I've no reason to believe that my journey has been particularly different from that of many of my peers.

It took me by surprise back in 2012/13 when the first of what was to be a minor flood of enquiries from Hollywood rolled up in my inbox. Prince of Thorns had done well but it was by no means a blockbuster hit. There were hundreds of fantasy books on the shelves that had sold far more copies and had far bigger followings. And yet here was a film producer who'd made films I'd heard of, emailing little old me personally. He loved my work. He saw all sorts of potential. He'd love to talk. His number was...

What followed were other producers, studio executives, or (more frequently) people working for these sorts of people, asking whether the rights to The Broken Empire had been optioned? Over the next few years I had somewhere in the region of two dozen such enquiries.

I spent a long time on the phone with very talkative, very enthusiastic, very convincing Hollywoodians. And I HATE phone calls. Hate them.

I was even skyped by the head of the head of a major US TV network's Hollywood studio (CBS). He talked about how many millions would be spent on the (and here I forget the terminology) short taster that would be used to drum up funding for a full film.

I had small film companies showing me their short-form work and conference calling about scripts for different scenes - filming to start in 3 months.

Here's the thing though. All of these people wanted the option on my work. Not one of these people was prepared to pay for it.

The option is a legal agreement that for the period of the option (typically 1 or 2 years) the author will not sell the film or TV rights to their work to anyone else. That's all it is. You haven't agreed to sell them to the person who holds the option (though sometimes you have - more of that later), just not to sell them to anyone else.

When you've just written a book, when you're Joe Nobody, and someone from Hollywood, maybe an actual film producer, maybe a middleman who has fixed up the sale of this and that film, this and that series to major producers, calls you up and enthuses and effuses about your work ... it's incredibly flattering. They spend an hour bending your ear. At some point you get to the bit where you find out they're not offering you any money for the option ... but hell ... all they want is a year to fix something up? And it's not like you'd even thought you stood a chance of a film/series!

So, yes, many times when authors of non-blockbuster books announce they've been optioned for film or TV ... that author has just (for $0) agreed not to sell the option to anyone else for a year.

I did that with the Broken Empire for a year back in 2013 ish. I sold ... well gave ... the option on the Broken Empire to the producer of some well known films for a year. Nothing came of it.

The novelty wore off and I reached the stage where I just forward the emails to my media rights agent who tells them that if there's no money involved there's nothing to say.

So what's this all about? You might (or should) ask. Why would these busy professionals waste their time acquiring the options on loads of fantasy books, knowing that the chances of anything happening with any of them are minute?

Well, Hollywood often says it's looking for something new. The truth though is that mostly they are looking for a bandwagon to jump on. If a film about body swapping makes it big … like BIG did … then they suddenly want to make more body swapping films.

So if, as a producer or someone who supplies opportunities to producers, you have shelves and shelves of $0 options on books, then you are really well placed to react to sudden demands following a mega success.

Also - Game of Thrones was just breaking big, so for the whole time between my debut and now there has been a big push to acquire rights to fantasy books in hopes of finding a replacement or competitor, or at least to ride the wave.

A second type of option - very similar to the first - is one where they pay you some money. However, as soon as actual dollars go into the author's pocket there is (in my experience) an extra layer to the process. They don't want to give you money then put in the work to find a series or film deal and then come to you with it and have you name a ridiculous price, or say "no thanks - I'll just wait the option out". So what they do is along with the offer to pay you money for the 1 year or 2 year option, they will thrash out a detailed financial deal that you pre-agree to in the case of a series or film. Now they can go to market with a neat package - here's this intellectual property and here's exactly what you'll have to pay the author should you want to use it.

So, now the author knows exactly what they're going to get, per episode, per season, on the merchandise, everything. And if someone pays the price, there's no saying no. I say exactly, but some elements are related to the amount of money put in to make the episodes. There is however, a floor and a ceiling, and the range isn't huge, so it's not going through the clouds even if production costs do.

Obviously if you're JK Rowling then you pretty much get to write your own contract, but for little fish, this is the way it is.

And, the sums involved are not large. Obviously making a TV series costs millions, and making a film tens or hundreds of millions. The author's slice is tiny. I wasn't shocked because I'd read a blog about it by Lev Grossman who said something along the lines of "If I told you how little I was getting you'd be shocked."

I won't put a figure on it, but let's say that for a full season of TV I would get less than the advance I get on one book. And I earned more in a year as scientist in the US in 2004 than I would for the season of TV.

The options themselves are also modest. You may have heard of the author of Gravity getting a million dollars when she sold the rights for film. This is not normal. Typically for midlist writers getting one of the much rarer "money options" we're talking low 5 figures. That's a little over 1% of what she got. The way in which this can constitute an income stream for an author is if the option gets rolled over multiple times and they get options on more than one piece of work. In the end you might earn more without ever seeing anything on screen than an author who made it to screen and got just one season.

So basically, my main interest is just for the fun of it. I'd love to see my stuff on TV. It's like getting reader art of my characters but x1000. And of course there is the possibility that a successful series would sell more books - though I'm not convinced it would make a huge impact.

And the chances of something getting made? Slim. Very slim. With a money option the odds are much better than a $0 option. Whatever the slick talkers of Hollywood say, my instinct is that $0 options get to sit on the shelf and hope that the Hollywood tides shift radically in their favour.

When $$$ are put on the table for an option then the party who has paid now has a strong incentive to do something about it before the option runs out. If that happens they've paid for nothing.

However, if they paid $10,000 for the option, or even $100,000 (very rare) or $1,000,000 (super rare), that's still small beans compared to the amount that would have to be invested in a TV series or film. See it a small gamble against being able to get someone else (investors) to make a large gamble.

I don't know what percentage of money options produce an end results, and obviously the more money involved the more likely it is to lead to a result. But it isn't a very big percentage. Think about how many fantasy TV series we've seen. It really isn't very many at all. But I've seen dozens of authors excitedly talk about being optioned. And there must be hundreds more that I didn't see.

So. Don't hold your breath. But on the other hand, there's no way this isn't good news! 😀😀😀

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  1. If they do it they'd better do it right!!

  2. Well, congratulations for at least having the opportunity. I hope we can see The broken empire on TV/Netflix, because I hope that could make the book reach the Spanish language. I'm a translator myself and read all your books in English, but when I wanted my sister to read it in Spanish... Well, surprise! First, it was just the first book, and second, it wasn't in Chile. Therefore, if a TV show makes it reach the Chilean shelves in Spanish, that would be just amazing.

    Also, I would love to see all these characters! Makin and Jorg, specially.

    Let's hope for the best!


  3. Well, first of all I just need you to know that I wrote a comment with all my heart and... I lost it. So, here I go again.

    It was indeed very interesting learning about all of these on your post, thank you for that. Congratulations for the option, anyway! I truly hope that the broken empire get a chance on TV/Netflix. Firstly, because it'll be a dream becoming true seeing Makin and Jorg on screen. Secondly, and this is very important to me, because maybe this gives it a second chance in the translation into Spanish. I'm a translator myself and I devoured all your books, but when I wanted my sister to read them, I realized there was just one book translated into Spanish (prince pr Thorns) and, worst, it was not available in my country. I tried buying it online and they ended up refunding me because they couldn't get me the book (I tried in Book Depository). Long story short, I hope that a TV show will lead us to a full Spanish translation. I want so many people to read your books, but it's mostly spanish-speaking people.

    I think I wrote all again, finally, so thank you for your book, congrats for this breaking new, and let's hope for the best!


  4. yaaaaaaaay finally

  5. "It's like getting reader art of my characters but x1000." Best attitude about the process I've ever heard! By the way, as you probably know, similar stuff happens in the music biz . . . companies will sign up artists with no intention of promoting them, on the off-chance that if one of them does get a hit, they can swoop down and collect.

  6. Scary part is if they butcher the story. If I was a writer that would be my biggest fear of them making a TV series or movie.

    1. See world war z. Great book really bad film.
      But would love to see the road brothers in all their gory glory.

  7. Thanks for the knowledge, dude. If Spielberg comes calling, I now know what to do. (Note to self - Put Lawrence's media specialists on speed dial, send him a toaster if all goes well...)

    Cheers to seeing your dreams on any screen!

    -Dale Triplett

  8. Hi Mark, it's interesting to hear about these details and the idea of producers having a bunch of potential ideas sitting on a shelf was a new one for me. Until now I had no explanation for some of the stories I've heard from authors. For example, I had a friend who had Hollywood interest right after her book was sold to a publisher, but they bailed as soon as she got one bad review from a fanatical book reviewer.

    Of course I daydream about seeing my favorite books and my own books on the big screen, but I have to say my expectations are pretty low considering a few things. One is that I like "my version" of the book as a reader, i.e. the interaction I have with the story itself is a big part of the magic of reading it. The big downside is that reading is a private thing that isn't as easily shared as a movie.

    But the other reason I am not so excited about all the fantasy adaptations and options I am hearing about (e.g. The Song of Shattered Sands TV Adaptation that's been optioned) is that I've come to see film and literature as distinct art forms. Some stories can be adapted into good movies or TV shows, but reading a book is just a totally different experience.

    I'm kind of excited for the Wheel of Time show, for instance, and often thought about how I'd turn it into a movie, but I'm not expecting them to "get anything right," nor am I expecting it to be anywhere near as interesting as the books. We'll see how excited I am when it actually comes out (at least the people making it are fans; there's good and bad there, too).

    I think a lot of people see an adaptation as a kind of validation that the story is appealing or exciting (some pathologically; who cares if other people like it if you do?), but most of all I'm excited for how it acts as advertising for particular works or the genre as a whole. That is a good thing.

  9. I like that there is a SLIM possibility, and that maybe you are allowed to have creative direction/oversight...

  10. I like that there is even a chance!

  11. Thanks for a very interesting and informative piece. Your commitment to bringing transparency to the writing world is much appreciated.

  12. A very interesting and informative piece. The transparency you bring to the publishing world is much appreciated.

  13. What effect does being optioned or better yet a film or series being made have on book sales? To what extent can it reinvigorate older books and what is the likliehood of the book being reprinted if picked up by a major production company?

    1. Being optioned has almost zero effect - if you get a popular post about the fact on reddit then you might sell 4 extra copies.

      Being a film or TV series … a modest effect I expect, though fairly minimal if it's not a popular adaptation. Re-prints … well those happen all the time. Prince of Thorns is on its 24th printing.

  14. This is very exciting news for me. Your books reignited my love for fantasy and sci-fi, and I have been of mind that they would translate to screen extremely well given both excellent character development and action.

    I know not much time has passed since this post relative to how time passes in Hollywood, but can you tell us what you feel the chances might be for this to actually get greenlit, or if there has been any progress on it already?

    Also, I hope you included a mandatory Elias appearance in any agreements you made.

  15. Dear Mr. Lawrence,

    What of the Red Queen's War? I think it would be intriguing to have a TV series that entwines these two series.

    Michael Benoit