Your Book Has Been Optioned For Film/TV—What Happens Next?
By the grace of some deity out in the cosmos, I’m currently sitting on three media options—my novel The Warehouse was optioned for film by Imagine Entertainment, The Paradox Hotel was optioned for TV by Working Title, and the Ash McKenna books have also been optioned, by Village Roadshow. It’s a fun, sometimes confusing, sometimes scary, sometimes frustrating process. It also raises a lot of questions—I am asked about this stuff all the time and there seem to be some misconceptions around the whole process—so I figured I would answer some of those questions here! To be clear, while I try to provide a bird's-eye view, this is based mostly on my experience, and as always, there are exceptions to everything.
What even is an option?
It’s exactly what it sounds like—an entity, usually a production company but sometimes a streamer or studio, “options” your work. They pay you a certain amount of money for the rights to produce a film or a TV show based on what you wrote. The option usually goes for a set period—say, 18 months. At the end of that, they can either drop the option, or re-up for the same period, for the same amount of money they paid you the first time. And if still nothing happens, you get the rights back.
What’s the difference between an option and a shopping agreement?
The difference is you shouldn’t sign a shopping agreement. That’s when you agree to let someone pitch the idea to producers and studios and whatnot for a limited time, but they don’t pay you anything, and usually there isn’t any kind of agreement on purchase price, plus you agree to put them in charge of it, if it goes forward. The problems here are: they don’t have any skin in the game, so there’s nothing to make them hungry for it, and if it doesn’t generate interest it’s going to sit on a back-burner for however long you agreed to. During this time, someone else who is actually serious could come along, and you’ve missed an opportunity.
Does an option mean this thing is gonna get made?
The answer here is in the word: option. Just because something is optioned doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. And while this isn’t based on any hard science, my understanding is the hit to miss ratio—the amount of things that get optioned versus the things that actually end up on a screen—is pretty low.
But isn’t this the golden age of content?
Yes, according to this article from The Bookseller which is behind a paywall so I can’t read it. The gist is: between the constant addition of new streaming services (three new ones appeared as I was writing this), and a global pandemic that’s keeping people home more, content is in high demand.
That said, there are only so many productions that can happen at one time. In an article I read a few years ago that I can’t find now, just staffing a TV show is tough—a lot of the more experienced tradespeople behind the scenes are assigned to productions for the foreseeable future; their economy is booming.
Plus, there’s a massive amount of content already out there to mine. It’s not just new books. Older books, comics, radio plays, old movies… board games! Someone is developing a Magic 8-Ball movie. That is not a joke. Plus all the stuff that’s being brought over or re-made from foreign markets. And streamers have vast libraries of IP to exploit. According to a buddy in the business, the amount of writers' rooms that are happening for shows that don’t end up getting made is pretty high, too.
Doesn’t that suck, if the film/TV show doesn’t get made?
Well, sure. Obviously it would be super exciting to see my work translated to a screen. But there are silver linings. An option raises your Q rating. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told someone “Oh I wrote a book,” and their eyes sort of glaze and then I say “It was optioned for film by Ron Howard,” and they’re like “Oh my god you were serious!”
Okay, but this must be major money, right?
It’s nothing to sneeze at, but unless you’re a big-name author, it ain’t gonna be in the millions. A lot of option agreements are laid out in installments. You get your option—and if the show or film gets picked up, that’s when the real money comes in. You get a purchase price, usually a portion of the project’s budget. There’s other stuff in there: per-episode payments, fees if you’re an executive producer, sometimes bonuses if you hit the bestseller list, etc. It’s all very confusing and I don’t totally understand the structure in my options, but my agent assures me they are very good!
Does the author get to write the script?
Depends! For The Warehouse, I never asked and it was never offered and I think it was better that way (a novelist friend who works in TV told me you’re the worst person to adapt your own book; you can’t see past what you wrote to what needs to be translated for the screen). I tend to be in agreement with that. I don't really know how to write a screenplay and The Warehouse was not the venue to learn.
For The Paradox Hotel I negotiated a clause that I get to write an episode if it goes forward. Also known as the 'George R.R. Martin deal', it means I don’t have to be in the writers' room full-time. Though many are virtual now, an in-person room usually means a three to four month stint in LA, at least, and I don’t want to move to LA. I was initially unsure about writing for TV, but another friend told me: the worst case scenario is, I do a crap job and they rewrite it. Best case is I do a good job and it leads to more TV work.
Ash McKenna, I can't really talk about!
All this said: Your mileage is going to vary based on who you sign your stuff over to.
Wait, so, writers' rooms, executive producer credits—how do you get those?
You ask. Or more appropriately, your agent asks. And you hope the production company says yes, which: they don’t have to! But if the worst thing they can say is no, it’s good to go for it. Just know that an executive producer credit is generally an honorarium—it doesn't convey much power, it just sounds nice.
You sure get a lot of advice from friends.
Yes, this is the benefit of being part of a diverse and bustling writing community. You get to compare experiences. It’s sort of like a union except it doesn’t confer any benefits besides hangovers. Which isn’t even really a benefit, but that’s pretty much all that’s left in the end.
So it sounds like you’re working pretty closely with the production companies that optioned your work. Is that always the case?
Nope! I remember once being on a panel where an author talked about how she only ever heard news about the movie they made of her book when it was announced in the trades; no one ever told her anything. I’ve been lucky in that all three production companies have been pretty open and have kept me involved in the process. I’ve met with all the writers working on my stuff. I even read the pilot for The Paradox Hotel, and was offered the opportunity to give notes (I had none; it was great).
But you actually got to meet with some of these folks?
I have! While I was at San-Diego Comic Con a few years ago I drove to LA to meet with the screenwriter for The Warehouse. Me and the writer for Paradox had a few good conversations, and I even bounced the idea for a second book/season off him. I had a nice long lunch with the guys doing the Ash books. Again, your mileage may vary on this. That’s just been my experience. Some people will say they want you involved and never return your calls, some will want you to be a part of the process but you might feel better just leaving it in their hands.
So the "Paradox" pilot is done? Does that mean they’re making it soon?
Nope! It’s actually not done; they’re still noodling with it. Then come the next steps, which, in a general sense, is fielding it out to actors and actresses to see if someone wants to sign on, and to streamers and broadcasters to see if anyone wants to make it. This is actually a somewhat complicated subject—packaging—and if you want to dive into a rabbit hole you can start here.
What about casting? Do you get a say in that?
Again, nope! During conversations with various parties, I’ve thrown out ideas, and we’ve had some crossover, but no, I don’t get a say. Stephen King, apparently, gets to approve casting, but he’s Stephen King—you can’t compare anyone’s experience to his.
Are you afraid they’ll make a bad movie or TV show?
I mean… sure? It could happen! Look at Rick Riordan, who is not shy about his experience with the Percy Jackson films.
I have a lot of faith in everyone I’m working with—no one has said anything I felt was a red flag. Changes have to be made no matter what. For example, in The Warehouse, most of one character’s narrative is delivered in blog posts. You can’t film that. But as another friend with TV experience told me, even if they make a shitty movie, I still get paid and I’ll sell a ton of books. Does that sound a little cutthroat? Maybe. Would I still be bummed? Sure. But to my mind, the book will always be there.
Is there anything about the process that is hard or just plain sucks?
Sure! Nothing moves very fast, so you spend a lot of time waiting to get an email returned. Friends and family and fans ask you about it all the time, and the best you can do is shrug—but it reminds you that you’re still waiting on that email. I am not a fan of movie/TV tie-in covers, which sounds like a dumb thing to be worried about, but hey, here we are.
Wow, sounds like a rough life, can I play the world’s smallest violin while you bitch about your three media options?
Yes you can! This isn’t a “woe is me” thing. I’m just being realistic.
How do I get something optioned?
Get yourself an agent who works with a good film/TV agent. Most literary agents don’t do that stuff directly (and if they do… it might not be their strength). Rather, my agent has a film/TV agent he works with, who then goes out and tries to sell my stuff. She’s great. I like her a lot. That’s step one. The other is to get a book deal with a major publisher. It helps! My first five books all came out with a small press and the best I ever got was a shopping agreement. You don’t really get to swim in the grown-up pool until you sign with a bigger house.
Though that’s not always the case. Max Booth III’s We Need To Do Something came out with a small press and got turned into a movie. I’ve got another friend whose book came out with a small press and it’s currently being developed by Netflix (and his agent negotiated him an active role in the process). It’s sort of like publishing: sometimes the winds will take you there if they take you there.
Can I negotiate a deal without an agent?
You shouldn’t. If you don’t have an agent, at the very least you should work with an entertainment lawyer, but this isn’t something you should do on your own.
So what specifically is going on with your stuff?
I’ve heard some encouraging things on each one, but it’s not for me to say at this point; everything could change tomorrow. Nothing is actively in production yet. Part of me feels like, even if something got greenlit, I will believe it when I am literally sitting and watching it.
And it’s not really my role to announce stuff anyway; while the deal for The Warehouse got a splashy announcement in the Hollywood trades, neither Paradox nor Ash did, and I actually went to both production companies to ask if I was cleared to discuss them publicly.
If any of this stuff gets made, do you get a set visit or a cameo?
I asked my agent if that was something we should negotiate into the contract. Her response: “The way you get those things is by not being an asshole.”
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