Wednesday, December 23, 2009

RERUNS: ADAPTATION pt. 1 & 2

(Re-running screenwriting articles during the Christmas holidays. Adapted from an article in CHUD's Movie Insider Magazine, originally published on this blog in 2005. Copy-edited and cleaned up a bit)

PART 1


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 canceled 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 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, okay. 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.

***************************************************

PART 2

Those Who Can't Teach, Develop.

Why are so many adaptations written? Many were born of something beautiful: passion. Somebody read the story, and it thrilled them or inspired them or terrified them. Many directors want the challenge of bringing images to the screen they'd only imagined. Sometimes writers love something, and they just want to share it with their friend sin the darkness. Adaptations like that are often nursed for years, clutched to one creative madman's chest like a baby chick with a wet cough. Some -- but not all -- adaptation jobs come about this way.

So where do the rest come from?

The real bear is the "business" side of this business we call "show." In 2002, Sony was the box-office winner, garnering 17% of total box office for a staggering 1.5 BILLION dollars. You know how many of that year's top 100 movies they released?

Thirteen.

That's right. Don't focus on the obvious win, focus on this: those poor bastards in the Sony exec offices were gambling in a billion-dollar game based on just thirteen movies.

Movie executives do not lead happy lives. If you are an executive, this is your day: a scruffy man in a Hawaiian shirt walks into your office and says, "I need you to be personally responsible for giving me one hundred million dollars so I can go to Ireland and have people who pretend for a living act like they're fighting imaginary dragons."

"Will I get to see the dragons first?" you ask hopefully.

"Oh, no the dragons won't exist until after we're done shooting. The professional pretending people will be yelling at sticks. Occasionally, they will flee from a mop."

And your job, as the exec, is to write him the check. Any sane man would break.

So, what would any sane person do? Hedge the bet. Generate as many scripts as possible, to get as many choices as possible. If I'm Joe Blow executive, I need ten movies this year. That means I need ten shooting scripts -- how many scripts are the right budgets AND attracted a director AND got the right actor involved? One in ten? So I need a hundred shooting scripts! How many scripts are far enough along to be in that pile? One out of ten? I need a THOUSAND scripts in various stages of development! How many major Hollywood studios are there? Ten. At any given time Hollywood the industry needs ten thousand scripts in development ...

I'm exagerrating, of course, but not by much. Faced with such high stakes, studios and the people who sell to them try to find an edge, any edge. This book already has an audience? Well then, hell, at least those people will come. This comic book is practically a storyboard! It's 90% of the way to being a movie! Buy it, buy it, BUY IT!

Is this insane? Yes. Is it artistic? Hell no. Will it change any time soon? I have my theories, but no, I wouldn't bet on it. In theory, pure capitalism always creates the most efficient market. But in the movie business, Adam Smith's invisible hand is giving us the finger.

So there they sit, literally vaults of stories waiting to be readied for the big screen. Somebody's gotta turn 'em into 120 pages. Might as well be us. Now, roll up your sleeves, and let's get to work ...

Next week: Rules 1 & 2 of adaptation




*("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)

23 comments:

Zifnab said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zifnab said...

"-- In theory, pure capitalism always creates the most efficient market. But in the movie business, Adam Smith's invisible hand is giving us the finger. --"

In all fairness, given all the unknowns, this really is the most efficient market.

You'd be crazy to put all your money on black at the roulette wheel. And you'd be even crazier to put it all on #23.

Studios have no idea what is in a writer's head at a given time. The Blair Witch Project was a cheap-ass film that pulled in millions easy. Waterworld was a nine digit flop. And those were movies that actually got made.

And when Sony has a $1.5 billion revenue stream (off of 17% of the market) and a script costs you $150k to pick up, what's a thousand scripts in the grand scheme of things?

Fuck, sure. Scripts are cheap and writers are a neigh unlimited resource. It's Sam's Club, baby! Why not buy in bulk?

Also, if you make $150k in a year and you pay out $75k in taxes, you need to kindly stab your tax accountant in the throat with a claw hammer. Millionaires don't pay out more than 33%, and that's assume every last deduction and credit is phased out.

Rogers said...

Hmm, missed that math in the first posting, although when you add state and federal taxes, Medicare with-holding, FICA ... you get within spitting distance.

AND mind you, most people don't have the cunning full-time business humans I do. Even if you slide that math, commissions are still on pre-tax amount, sooo ... still crappy. Well, not as crappy as NOT getting paid to write, but my point stands -- you will not retire, or even make much money, off your first script IN THE MOST IDEAL SITUATION IMAGINABLE.

As to the Adam Smith reference, I meant more that we creative types were getting the middle finger. And I would argue, the negatives development as a script-churning system outweigh the positives of creating such a volume of choices.

Lee said...

That's got to be the most stirring defense of movie execs I've ever read.

Melissa said...

I went to a writers' conference this past summer, and in a screenwriting session, the presenter said that only four genres are currently selling in Hollywood: action, comedy, horror, and thriller. Drama, in his opinion, is the kiss of death. Animation, sci-fi, and other expensive genres are selling, but only to known screenwriters. (Same would be said of drama, I bet, since we do see it occasionally.)

My question: Do you agree with the presenter? Is it worth doing an original spec or adaptation in anything other than action, comedy, horror, or thriller?

Anonymous said...

I certainly don't claim to know a bloody thing about the movie industry but I have worked for and currently work for an extremely large corporation. And, let me tell you, Adam Smith wasn't living in a world of International Conglomerates. (Belief in efficient markets? Sort of like Santa Clause. That's adorable.)

Geoff Thorne said...

LOL.

No comment.

But, seriously.

LOL.

Isaac said...

Here's what I've always wondered:

How do the studio executives get into their position? My understanding is that most of these guys have not directed a movie themselves. So what's their entry point? You get hired as Mailroom Lad, and grind your way up through a corporate hierarchy until suddenly you've become Tom Cruise's character in TROPIC THUNDER, demanding that Peter Jackson make "The Lord of the Rings, but in SPACE this time, because kids love that Star Trek stuff"? Despite having never actually done any creative work previously?

Or is this where all the Film Studies majors end up somehow?

I would love some enlightenment on this.

RLW said...

There's also a good article over at the Onion AV club about breaking into publishing. His experiences pretty much mirror mine.

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