The (Unlikely) Economics of Your Book Becoming a Movie

hand of a writer with pen
hand of a writer with pen

This post is the sequel to Catherine Ryan Hyde's first article for DailyFinance, "The (Paltry) Economics of Being a Novelist." In that piece, she describes how novelists (theoretically) profit from their books. Here, the author of Pay It Forward, which was adapted to film, delves into what happens to authors when their books become movies.

Here's my take on Hollywood, framed in reference to "an author in film land" (the only frame I have).

When I was a kid, the Mickey Mouse Club used to bill itself as a place where "anything can happen... and it usually does." Hollywood is a land of possibilities. You can make millions. Become a household name. Anything can happen. . .but it almost never does.

Having your book adapted into a Hollywood film for the first time is something like being struck by lightning (and comparably painful, but more on that later). I can't tell you how to make it happen -- except that you have to be standing outside in a storm. Granted, you could stand outside in a storm forever and never be struck, but you definitely won't be struck while sitting beside your warm fire.

Lightning struck when my novel Pay It Forward was adapted into a Warner Brothers film starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt. Now, several of my other titles have enjoyed, or are enjoying (it's harder to tell these days) the preliminary "option/development" status, including Walter's Purple Heart, Love in the Present Tense, Chasing Windmills and Electric God. The good news for Electric God was Nicolas Cage signing on to play Hayden Reese. The bad news? That was in 2003, and it still hasn't come to a theater near me.

Where's the Money?

How many of those films will land on the big screen? Well, Pay It Forward. And of the others? A nice round guess could run as low as none. But one or even two are certainly not outside the realm of possibility. Remember, anything can happen. . .

So let's talk contracts, options and numbers.

When I optioned Pay It Forward, I was told the going industry rate for options was about $1,500 to $2,500. (Except, of course, when it's more. Or less.) This grants exclusive rights to market the work for either 12 or 18 months (to be negotiated) and an automatic right to renew, once, for the same length of time and the same price.

This money is applicable against the exercise price, however. Like a book advance, it's more of a loan. If a film company exercises the option (generally at the start of principal filming), it deducts the option fees before paying off the contract. If the film is never made, the author keeps the option money.

But that was back in 1998. These days the going rate seems to be. . .nothing. Give or take. It's becoming more and more popular to be asked to grant exclusive rights to market your book for one year for no money down. Of course, if multiple film companies are clamoring for your book, you won't put up with that. But since I probably own enough fingers to count the novels currently enjoying clamoring, let's say you'll give it a try. Why say no and then put film rights in a drawer?

Worth "Toilet Paper in Hollywood"

I can't tell you much about my contract with Warner Brothers. Because I never had one. My agents optioned the unpublished manuscript (anything can happen) to a tiny film company (translation: young producer looking to make a name). Said producer brokered the contract to "The WB" less than two weeks later. Money was negotiated when we had about as much chance of ending up on film as being struck by the aforementioned lightning. I earned the same flat fee for the movie rights as for the book advance (six figures, but only just). The young producer made more.

Later, one of the bigger producers told us the amount of my fee was "toilet paper in Hollywood." Right. We sort of knew that, but thanks for verifying.

My subsequent option contracts were negotiated not for a flat fee but for a percentage of the production budget. It may seem more logical to go after a piece of the profits, but that tactic lost favor when films became famous for rarely showing a profit on paper. A big production budget is a source of pride, so my agents felt this would be a good number on which to hang my percentage (about 2.5%, with both a floor and a ceiling).

Between your literary agent and your subagent, plan on letting go of at least 20%. Still, if they get you something to let go of, I bet you'll be elated. And when you total up increased book sales and added value to subsequent contracts, it's all for the good.

Forget About Creative Control

So what about theatrical rights? TV rights? Marketing rights, like action figures and T-shirts? First let me do a quick check here. Are you J.K. Rowling? Right. You won't get those. They will.

And here's something else you won't get: creative control. Explaining the author's creative role in the adaptation process won't take long. You don't get one.

This requires a degree of acceptance and calm. Friends will fret with you. They will say things like, "How can you stand to watch them change your book?" Invite them to open your book and see how unchanged it really is. They're demonstrating that they have not differentiated "your book" from "their movie." Don't you make the same mistake.

No Complaints

So, was I happy with the movie? Not very. It's anything but a faithful adaptation. But it's an adaptation. For an author, this is the brass ring. I made up my mind: I would not be one of those people who finally got everything she ever wanted and could do nothing but complain. No, I would not complain.

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I would save my complaining for 10 years later, when 90% of the Pay It Forward concept's most ardent supporters not only hadn't searched out any of my other 13 novels but hadn't read the novel Pay It Forward.

But, no. I still won't complain. Because name recognition is important to an author. And a movie adaptation both gives and takes away, leaving the author with the opportunity to focus on what she's gained, not on what she's lost.

During the adaptation process, a friend sent me a quote from author Jacqueline Mitchard, whose novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, was adapted for film. She said, "Where I come from, you can take the money, or you can moan about the process, but not both."

I adopted it as my mantra. And I took the money. And I advise other authors to take the money. Moaning is not all it's cracked up to be.

Author Catherine Ryan Hyde
Author Catherine Ryan Hyde

Catherine Ryan Hyde

is the author of 16 published and forthcoming books, including the novels Jumpstart the World, Love in the Present Tense, Becoming Cloe, and Pay It Forward, which was translated into 23 languages and chosen by the American Library Association for its Best Books for Young Adults list. Read her blog on Red Room.