by JIM KNIPFEL
August 19, 2007
Movie Rights and Wrongs
It’s become a common conception nowadays—and a sad one, I think—that while writing books is fine and noble and all, a book doesn’t really matter until it gets turned into a movie. Writers and non-writers alike seem to think this way.
From a writer’s perspective, the reasoning is simple: there’s much more money in movies than there is in publishing. Not only will a studio pay a hell of a lot more for the rights to a book than any publishing house would (or could)—if a movie does indeed ever come out, even if it’s a stinker, it guarantees a boost in book sales.
It’s a win-win situation, with a ton of cash involved—just look at what happened to the guys who wrote the books Leaving Las Vegas and Sideways were based on. They were on easy street!
Many years ago, a friend of mine sold a book to a major studio before selling it to a publisher. And because he could approach the publisher with a manuscript already picked up by the movies, his advance for the book was double what it would’ve been otherwise, because jeepers, if the movies were interested, then it must be something super.
Shortly thereafter he abandoned publishing altogether and went to Hollywood, where he’s since become an unbelievably successful screenwriter (and, I might add, a very good one).
For years now, he’s been nudging me to do the same thing, but I’ve always hesitated. More than hesitated. I saw the sort of bullshit he had to put up with, the editorial pressures coming down from illiterate studio execs, and I knew I’d be much happier sitting alone here in my little apartment, money or no money.
(Well, let’s be blunt—it’s just “no money.”)
His case was a unique one. I’ve been through the whole “my book’s been optioned by the movies” game in the past. Let me explain just how glamorous it really is for most of us.
I’m hardly bragging when I say that I’ve been approached a number of times over the years by people who said they wanted to make a movie out of one of my books. Fact is, everyone who’s ever written a novel, a memoir, a newspaper article or a letter home has been (or eventually will be) approached at one time or another by someone making the same claim. It’s a very common practice, and maybe one in five thousand times will a movie actually come out of it.
Most of the times I was approached, I was approached by very enthusiastic people who were full of notions. Problem was, most of them also had no idea that they had to “obtain the rights” first. Apparently they thought I could just say “sure, go ahead, knock yourself out” and off they’d go. As soon as they learned they had to put some money out front, the enthusiasm waned pretty darn quickly.
It didn’t much matter, though—I had vowed for a long time that I didn’t want any movie versions made of anything I’d written, for the simple reason that I knew full well that any filmmaker, no matter how talented, would fuck things up royally. Think about it—how many movies are actually better than the books they’re based on? I can think of only a handful: The Godfather, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The French Connection, Lady From Shanghai, Jaws, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Carrie, and pretty much all of Stanley Kubrick’s pictures. That’s it.
For awhile I did say no to everyone who approached, and it felt good to say no. But then, well, money started getting tight, and when a call came in from a respectable independent film company, I finally broke down and agreed. This was back around 1999 or so.
It was one of biggest mistakes I ever made. I’ve really got to learn to hang on to those various vows I make to myself.
The fact that we were talking about memoirs here made things especially complicated. First they just wanted to option my second book. That was fine. Then realizing that the second book and first one would work together well, they decided they wanted both. But upon being informed that the rights to two books would cost, you know, twice as much as the rights to one, they changed their mind. Now they just wanted the first book and forgot about the second. Then realizing that a lot of the stories in the first book were based on stories I’d published in various incarnations of this column, they wanted to get the rights to the column, too.
Well, see, the problem with that was that it meant they would, in legal terms, own the rights to my character. Given that “my character” is, well, me, it meant they would own the rights to my whole life. Needless to say, this was problematic on a philosophical level.
The wrangling and arguing went on and on, yet much to my surprise, we finally did settle on a contract. The man who would be directing the movie came to New York, and we went to a bar. He was a nice enough fellow, if a little loud. I became worried, though, when I suggested it would be cool if he could get the great Marjoe Gortner and the equally great Susan Tyrrell—two of my favorite character actors—to be in the picture.
“Your friends can come to the auditions if they want,” he said, “but they’ll be judged the same way we judge everyone else.”
That was a bad sign. If he didn’t know who Marjoe Gortner or Susan Tyrrell was, he really wasn’t the person who should be directing the movie. But, hey, it wasn’t my call. My feeling was that I’d take their money, then step back and let them fuck up the material in whatever monstrous fashion they saw fit. If no movie came out (and they usually didn’t) I’d have the money, and nothing out there on the screen that I would have to be ashamed of. That was cool with me.
Then the film company broke up, and the two partners went off in different directions and formed their own film companies, dividing the projects they had between them.
Well, now, with new companies you get new lawyers and you need new contracts, so the whole process started all over again, with the same arguments and the same philosophical dilemmas.
It was mighty exhausting.
Meanwhile, the director had one screenwriter after another taking a stab at the script, and all of them were failing miserably. Another vow I made to myself was that I wouldn’t write a script based on the memoirs, and I’ve stuck to that one so far. I love movies too much to fuck them up myself.
These ridiculous contract negotiations for the rights to a stupid book went on for nearly two years. But money was still awfully tight, so I had to keep in mind all the while that there was a massive payday at the end of the ol’ tunnel. Yessirree, I was gonna be rolling in it!
In the end, they held onto the rights for about eight years. Because of certain contractual nonsense, during that time I couldn’t sell any other non-fiction writing to any other movie company (should I want to, and should anyone, you know, ask). And as those negotiations dragged on and on, the lawyer bills piled up.
Not surprisingly, the film company couldn’t conjure up a usable script, and they finally abandoned the project. They didn’t even get close to making a movie. And that mountain of cash that comes with any movie deal, whether things get made or not? After paying the lawyer bills, I cleared about $830. My Big Time Smart Ass Movie Deal wouldn’t even cover a month’s rent.
I decided at that moment to reaffirm those old vows, and this time I’d stick to them. I’d had quite enough of the movie business. Sitting alone in my little apartment and typing goofy stories was a much easier, much saner way to go.
That’s why, a couple weeks ago when I was approached by an enthusiastic gentleman who wanted to make a movie out of a silly novel I’d written in 2001, I was polite but firm, and immediately agreed.
There wasn’t a ton of money involved, that was made clear from the beginning. But he knew who Marjoe Gortner was, and dammit, that’s good enough for me.
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