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Devourer of Words 008: Hollywood State of Mind

Marc Bernardin

While the crazy intellectual-property gold rush of the 2000s—when producers and development executives would visit the San Diego Comic-Con and shower creators with lucrative options like it was going out of style—are mostly over, the prospect of having Hollywood show some interest in your book is still very real.

But, even though we’re all in the storytelling business, the language of comics and the language of Hollywood are vastly different. Both parties have different objectives and priorities, so here are some things to keep in mind while fielding Hollywood interest.

You are not going to get rich. At least not right away.

The first thing a movie studio or producer will offer you is an option: Basically, they are paying now for the exclusive right to buy it later. You will hear things like, “The Studio wants to option it for $25,000 against $250,000.” That means they are giving you $25,000 now and, in return, you are giving them the property for a predetermined amount of time, usually a year or 18 months. Within that time, they can do whatever they want with it—hire writers to adapt it, engage a director to develop it, attach an actor to star in it, or do nothing at all. The one thing they can’t do is actually film it. That’s where the “against $250,000” comes in. That is the actual purchase price. They can’t film it until they own it, and for that they owe you the big chunk. Keep in mind: for every Hellboy or 2 Guns or 30 Days of Night, there are a dozen properties that are optioned that never get made. And, depending on who does the optioning, the price can vary. But it’ll never be “Holy crap, we can retire!” money.

Hire a lawyer.

If you don’t already have representation, get yourself a lawyer. (A lawyer will take only 5%, compared to an agent or manager’s 10% and, if you are alone in the woods, a lawyer will be all you need at first.) You need to remember that, in Hollywood as in life, no one will have your best interests at heart but you. The studio will take everything they can get. It is in their nature. They’re not evil; they are just in the business of making money and they’ve gotten exceedingly good at it. They will take things you didn’t even know existed simply because they’re not nailed to the floor. Your publisher (unless it’s Image) will have their own team that deals with Hollywood—but that team is looking out for the publisher, not you. You will be, at best, a good-faith afterthought. So get someone working for you who knows the ins and outs of the legalese, who understands what you should get in return for that option/purchase money, what you have a decent chance of getting if you ask, and what’s entirely off the table.

You will neither write it nor direct it.

Unless you have already written or directed movies and/or television—basically, unless you’ve already got your Hollywood bonafides—you won’t be involved in any real creative capacity in the adaptation of your book. You might be consulted (and that’s something a good lawyer can get put in the contract), you might even be able to negotiate a junior-but-ultimately-meaningless producer credit, but that’s about it. Hollywood came calling for your work, not for you. It’s worth noting that, on The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman neither wrote nor directed the pilot. But, he did have a team that got him an executive producer credit and a guarantee that he’d write one episode of that first season. And, as time went on, he demonstrated his value to the network and the producers. It is also worth nothing that when writer-producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who had already been on the Lost writing staff, published The Middleman, he was the executive producer/showrunner when he sold it to ABC Family.

Make sure every deal is better than the last.

Hollywood is all about precedent and on your first deal, you’re going to get screwed. Probably not badly, as it’s not in anyone’s best interest to have an irate creator shouting into the wind of the Internet, but, yeah, you’re gonna get a little rodgered. Just make sure that every new option, every new contract, advances you one rung up the ladder. A little more money, a little more involvement, but you’ve got experience under your belt and experience costs.

Remember, you have your finger on the trigger.

Up until the contracts are signed, you have the ultimate weapon: the power to say no. If things are going in a direction you don’t like, if the version of the story isn’t to your liking, you can walk away. When my writing partner Adam Freeman and I were talking to producers about optioning our comic, Genius—which is about a teenage girl from South Central LA who secedes a few blocks from the United States—we heard any number of takes on the material, including more than a few who were afraid of a movie starring a young, black revolutionary who violently took on the LAPD. And we kept on hearing pitches that wanted to set it in the future, or in the wake on a catastrophic earthquake or, instead of the LAPD, what if she took on a private security force? Anything to not have to deal with the reality of the subject matter. And our response was always the same: “That sounds like an interesting movie, one that we’d probably pay to go see … but that’s so far from what we wrote that you don’t need our book to make it.” There are always going to be changes to the source material when it’s adapted. Change is a necessary part of the process and should be welcomed when it makes the material better, not just different. At least for me, the spirit of the source material needs to remain, the reason why everyone—from the creative team, to the publisher, to the producers—responded to it in the first place.

Otherwise, what’s the point…other than to get not-exactly-rich?

Marc Bernardin’s Devourer of Words appears the third Tuesday of every month on Toucan!