What's Wrong with Movie Rights

by James Wymore

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Posted by jameswymore

I love movies. I have defended Peter Jackson against Tolkien purists in front of hundreds of people as a panelist and presenter. I even like the Percy Jackson movies and The Seeker (adaptation of The Dark is Rising). Although my art is writing books and short stories, I am a rabid fan of cinema.

So I get it.

After years writing books and sending queries into the abyss, somebody finally sends you a contract for your novel. Once the butterflies settle, and after you call your mom and go out to celebrate with your friends, you sit down and actually read the thing. It’s nine pages long and most of it is in passive voice using sentence structure your English teacher would punish you for. You make an appointment to have somebody go over the confusing stuff with you. But the one thing you know, is that it has a clause claiming all the movie rights for the publisher. And even though you don’t personally know anybody who had a movie made out of a book, you vaguely remember a fear-inducing tale about an author who didn’t get a dime when they made her story into a blockbuster and she couldn’t stop them from changing the ending so the noble unicorn heroine actually turned out to be a robot-zombie.

You raise your emotions against such indignities and tell the publisher you want to keep your movie rights. And for good measure you throw in TV, live stage play, and merchandising.

The publisher says no.

Now you have a tough choice to make. Before you do something you’ll regret, give me a chance to talk you off the edge. Or, if you happen to read this before it happens, maybe I can save you some stress.

Movie deals almost never happen. By almost never, I mean you have a better chance of winning the lottery. If you don’t have an agent actively pursuing a movie deal, the odds effectively approach zero. At a book signing, I heard Terry Brooks (yes, that super famous guy) explain how movie rights for his Shannara series had been sold many times. People even started making plans for a movie a few times, but it fell apart over and over. They did finally make a TV series, but that was decades later. What went wrong?

[Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on the moving making process, or even an expert on publishing. This is just my own perspective on information I gathered along my journey as an author and editor.]

As I understand it, there are many hurdles along the road to making a movie. Somebody (usually an agent) will contract to represent the author or publisher and take a large number of books and try to find one in which a movie maker will be interested. Movie making people (companies, directors, who knows?) buy a “movie option” from the publisher and/or author. It’s basically reserving the right to make that movie if they want. It has a time limit and usually it’s for little or no money. If a director or producer really likes one of the options they might pursue it further, but among so many optioned properties, they tend to only seriously consider a few. A small percentage of those get started, and even fewer ever get all the way to filming. Some movies even fall apart after they start shooting. Obviously, a NY Times bestseller has a better chance of becoming a movie than a first-time author’s debut book.

Even if the miraculous comes true and your book gets made into a movie, there will definitely have to be a new contract, and you as the author are guaranteed to get some of that money. Who controls what and how much will have to be ironed out. If the publisher does all that, you’ll get the percentage your contract promised.

If you or your agent makes the golden contact and bring that deal to the table, you can renegotiate with the publisher for higher percentages. They will love you for it. Or, if you really don’t want the publisher involved (which is probably unethical since they are partly responsible for making the book so popular in the first place) you can either buy back all your rights from them before making the movie deal or let the time run out and end the contract.

If you feel that way about the publisher, though, maybe you should question why you would sign a contract with them at all. In my own modest experience, publishers earn their share of the royalties. I make more even though I share the profits with them because they generate more than twice as many sales than I would alone. And since I don’t know anybody making movies, if one of my publishers landed a movie deal, it would all be free money for me since it wasn’t anything I did to make it happen.

So why, if the odds are so remote, would a publisher care about retaining those movie rights? First, the publisher is taking a risk on your book. Most of the time, they lose money on books. A small number of books make enough money to keep them in business despite the losses on the majority of what they publish. If your book isn’t one of the stars, a movie deal isn’t going to happen anyway. If you do make the money, shouldn’t the publisher share in the profits for taking a risk on your work?

Second, you should remember that the story is still yours. You own it. Your contract only “loans” that property to the publisher for the duration of the contract so they can use it to make money. And if they are good, you’ll make more money, too. They can’t do their job effectively if you are able to sell the same story to other companies. That’s why they retain foreign language rights and such. Even if they aren’t planning to translate it into Japanese, their investment in the book is damaged by other companies selling the same story. So, for the duration of the contract, they need to be part of all such negotiations. It doesn’t mean you or your agent can’t make such a deal. Any extra deal would always come with another contract where you can negotiate for more if you feel you deserve it. Working with a publisher is a partnership. It’s only fair that both partners work together to make as much as possible out of your book, regardless of who brings the deals and how much each partner deserves.

If you have any real contacts that might lead to a movie deal, it’s reasonable to ask for that consideration to be in the contract. If you don’t, I recommend NOT hanging up a publishing contract because of unfounded fears that you might be taken advantage of. The publisher is taking a risk investing time and money in your book. It’s only fair that you share the benefits of any fruit such an investment yields.

For the record, if anybody reading this really does want to make one of my stories into a movie, I’ll probably let you do it for free, just to see it happen. 😊

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