Monday, January 24, 2005

Writing: Adaptation (Pt. 1)

(Adapted from an article in CHUD's Movie Insider Magazine)

TRUE STORY:
Movie Exec: They're insane. His last movie made a nickel. There's not a single star in the thing, the whole project's going to cost something like two hundred million dollars, they're shooting in New Zealand so the studio can't be down there and maintain control --they're ruined. What the hell were they thinking?
Me: The Lord of the Rings is the most popular set of books in HISTORY.
Movie Exec: Eh. Elves. Please.
An adaptation is a movie based on source materials: a novel, a comic book, a series of newspaper articles, etc. I also count most remakes and sequels as adaptations, because what the writer's doing is taking source material -- the first movie -- and telling another story using elements from it, be they characters or actual story beats.

Reality check: if you want to make a living as a professional Hollywood screenwriter, then odds are you will wind up writing an adaptation.

Time for some Hollywood 101. Let's take a best-case scenario. Say your career begins by selling an original script, a "spec sale". In this dreamy version, a man holding an automatic office door closer (they exist) sits opposite you across a coffee table covered with art books by artists he's never actually heard of. And he says:

"Great script. Wonderful. Characters are incredible, real director-bait. We're not going to rewrite it or give you notes, we're just going to make this as fast as humanly possible. Hmm? Oh, no more than three years. Five tops."

Now let's even spot you a pretty good deal for a young writer's first spec sale -- low six figures against high six figures. You don't get the high six figures until the movie's actually produced. If the movie's ever produced. That's what the "against" means in all the movie articles you've read. And kid, trust me,
that money -- my imaginary friend has an imaginary friend, and even he doesn't believe in that money.

Low six, let's say $150,000. Sweet Jesus, not bad, right? Take out taxes. $75,000 left. Commissions, that's $15-20k depending on your agent/lawyer deal. Say $60,000 left over three to five years (I'm not even counting the time it took you to write the thing and somehow get it to a Hollywood human), the value of any rewrites (if you get them, which you won't), pretty much cancelled by the free "courtesy passes" you'll do for the producers and execs.

You just averaged $15,000-$20,000 a year. Congratulations. You're a feature film writer, and the guy humping the Freezie machine at the 7-11 takes home more than you.
*

Even as you toil away on your next little original opus -- one you're in no way sure you'll be able to sell, remember -- the bills keep coming. Your kids need food. You need health insurance. You want to write for a living? Then you need to write and get paid for it. You need to go where writing gets done. You need to go to adaptation-land.

"No WAY!" I hear the goateed ones scream. "I'm only doing my own, brilliant original material. I'm no hack!"

Well, ok. If you're going to make indies, that can be true, and good on ya. You're a god. I admire you. (You're also probably a director, so fuck off back to your Guild and cackle over your egregious "FILM BY" credit. Bastards.) That's a whole different game, one I am absolutely not qualified to write about. You know who could write that column? Kevin Smith. He's gutsy as hell, and I admire him immensely. He'd write the shit out of that column.

I also have his script for
The Six Million Dollar Man on my shelf.

>NEXT WEEK: Those who can't teach, develop ...

*("What about those million-dollar script sales?" I hear you cry. Quick hint: if you're counting on a million-dollar script sale to justify your work on breaking into the film industry, go back to the filth-encrusted messageboard from whence you came. Adults only here, please)

22 comments:

Pierce said...

Wait - you can make money by humping the Freezie machine? SWEET!

On another tangent, I saw the making of Clerks docu on IFC a few weeks ago. Fascinating stuff - went all into how they lucked out at the Angelika festival and how they got a sponsor (Mark Tusk, I think) at Miramax to pretty much shove it down Harvey Weinstein's throat. Well, as much as one can shove a movie down Harvey's throat.

1031 said...

Yeah, that's a great documentary about Clerks. It was included in the awesome tenth anniversary edition of the flick, along with some cool Q&As and other, assorted, Askewniverse stuff.

I watched that documentary and, man, Smith was, what, 22? 23 when he made Clerks? I saw that and it kind of reinvigorated me in my quest to be not just a writer, but a paid writer.

And then I look back at all the crap I've written, and I've no idea how to direct (not that I really want to), and it's such a long, uphill battle to even get someone to look at your work, let alone give you money for it.

But, fuck it. I ain't workin' retail the rest of my life. Back to staring at the blank screen with the little blinking cursor...

Anonymous said...

I have Smith's "Superman Lives," which also never got made. It kind of stinks, but he has some great stories about the crap the producer made him stick in there, like a giant spider at the end.

DJ said...

Intreating. you couldn't have told me all this three years ago.

Rogers said...

You wouldn't have let me steal your idea then ...

DJ said...

That seems only fair. there are waitress in several cities who think I am you...just don't ever go to Cornwal or Mousejaw....or Halifax....or Tampa...you know what...just call me if you plane to travel.

Nobius said...

Great article. I've been reading your BLOG since Warren Ellis mentioned it. Love your articles on writing...keep it up.

Nobius
"I would love to love the world again; for the very first time."

Bug-Eyed Earl said...

Actually, as an aspiring writer, that doesn't sound too bad, unless you end up fucking hating the source material.

Actors have Bruckheimer films, and I guess I'll have my Robin Cook or Clive Cussler adaptation if I beat the odds and get work.

But please God, no Michael Crichton for me.

Good work, John.

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