Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Film options: should producers shit or get off the pot?

by Rob - May 8th, 2015.
Filed under: Film Rights, Terminal.

Over on my Facebook wall, in response to me having noted that Toronto’s Divani Films had renewed its film-rights option on my novel The Terminal Experiment for a ninth year, a reader wrote:

I had a discussion recently that a movie studio should have to make a movie within 5 years of buying the rights to the book. I argued that the fans deserved that. My favorite book had the rights bought in 1988 and after two false starts by Pitt, and then Affleck, it’s still in limbo. I would love to hear the thoughts of any published authors, including Robert, if he is willing.
My reply:

You’re conflating some notions here. Optioning a book and buying the rights to a book are two different things. Options are renewable on an annual basis for whatever number of years the owner (the author) and the studio or production company have agreed to; I usually do three-year periods (that is, when the book is optioned, the entity paying for the option has the right to renew the next year and the following year, with the option fee rising each year); since this is Divani’s ninth year, next year, if they want to option again, and I’m willing to option again, we sit down and renegotiate everything.

Most rights purchases — where the production company acquires the rights to actually make a movie, rather than just secures your promise not to sell those rights to somebody else (which is what an option is) — have a reversion clause, however seven years (rather than the five you suggest) is typical; if the film hasn’t been made in seven years, the author gets the rights back.

But, remember, for authors an option is a good thing: it’s a revenue stream; for some older authors, with no new books and little if any backlist generating income, it may be their major revenue stream. So don’t begrudge them that. You’ve got the book; you’ll always have the book. And, gently, that’s all the reader is entitled to.

It’s vanishingly rare for novels to be filmed: it’s not routine, it’s not something that happens to most books — and it takes time. When I won the Nebula for best novel in 1995 for the very book under discussion here, The Terminal Experiment, SFWA had been giving Nebulas for 31 years. How many of the Nebula Award-winning novels had been filmed at that point? Two — and, as it happens, the first two (Dune and Flowers for Algernon, the latter originally as Charly with Cliff Robertson).

It’s twenty years later now — and how many have been filmed since? Just one more, Ender’s Game, for a total of three best-novel Nebula Winners having been made into movies. Fifty years of Nebulas; three Nebula-winning novels filmed — and that’s the success rate for the works considered the very best in the field.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

8 Responses to Film options: should producers shit or get off the pot?

  1. Considering the movie versions of Dune and Ender’s Game (have not seen Flowers for Algernon) I suddenly find myself hoping no others get made. :-)

  2. The first movie version of Flowers for Algernon was called Charly and it starred Cliff Robertson; it’s wonderful.

  3. That is a disappointing percentage, given the quality of some of the books that are being turned into movies…

  4. I think Dune could still make a great movie(remember, Lord of the Rings was once considered “unfilmable”). Anyway, it’s not like a bad movie somehow tarnishes the book it’s based on, so I think there’s really nothing to lose by having a book adapted into a movie. My first choice for a book that hasn’t been made into a movie to be adapted is Rendezvous with Rama.

  5. My initial thought is using the award winning books to test percentages on isn’t the right way to go. Since the top book must really work /as a book/, not just as a story, or not just having strong characters, or not just have great action — it is more than the sum of its parts. I’d think an ok novel would be easier to adapt because there isn’t as much to worry about keeping *cough* Twilight *cough*?

    Perhaps the argument doesn’t hold. I’m sure too looking at total # of books published vs completed adaptions the percentage is probably lower than the 6% you site for the Nebula winners.

    Has there been times you’ve written a novel differently in anticipation of a future adaptation? After your time in Hollywood with Charlie Jade, or Flashforward, did your approach to novel writing change do you think?

  6. I’ve certainly been conscious of what Hollywood is looking for since FLASHFORWARD sold to ABC, and it’s not a coincidence that every one of my books since — the WWW trilogy of WAKE, WATCH, and WONDER, plus TRIGGERS, as well as RED PLANET BLUES — has been optioned almost at once. My first priority is absolutely delivering great novels, but I’ve got a better sense of how to position and present them now so that Hollywood will take note. :)

  7. Charly was a fantastic film—I got to watch it in a High School English class. And I’d argue the second attempt at Dune was pretty good too.So I’m not convinced Hollywood’s record with the ones they _have_ made is so bad.

    But I came to this blog post wondering if you were whining about somebody hanging onto your rights too long, and I’m glad to see that I agree with you completely. If an author doesn’t want to risk somebody renewing options for films or TV shows they won’t make, they don’t have to sell rights or options…

  8. Hi, Derek. Exactly. I’m not whining at all. I have a fantastic relationship with Divani Films, am always grateful for their nice cheques each year, and am cheering them on toward success. I’m always conscious of the fact that from the time I showed my Hollywood agent the manuscript for my novel FLASHFORWARD in 1998 until the series was on the air in 2009 was eleven years — but it was totally worth the wait.

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