Magic Seeds: The Art and Science of Book Discovery in Hollywood

In English Language, Resources by Guest Contributor

“The deal-making process is far more fluid than many people realize,” says veteran books-to-film agent Jeff Aghassi.
Read Part One of this article, in which ICM’s Josie Freedman and other Hollywood insiders talk about how they decide which books would make good movies.

By Peter Cook

magic seeds

“Because…essentially, anyone can publish these days, there is so much information out there that it is difficult to filter it out. I look around every time I walk in a bookstore and I think, ‘How do you find what you’re looking for in a place like this?’ And then you add the Internet into that and how do you find something on the Internet unless you go and search for it? If you don’t know what to search for, you’re never going stumble across it,” says veteran books-to-film agent Jeff Aghassi. Encapsulating the conundrum, he asks rhetorically, “How do you distinguish yourself?” Mr. Aghassi’s musing on the staggering odds for discovery faced by both hunter and prize belies his prescience over the years. “What do I look for?  I’m trying to feed the machine. And the machine wants…New York Times bestsellers.” Mr. Aghassi, the quintessential one-man-show, answers his own telephone and, odds and vicissitudes aside, listens intently to his own instincts. His success with getting last year’s Academy Award Best Picture winner, The King’s Speech, to the screen (although not an adaptation) typifies his devotion to the stories he represents. Before going solo, he worked with books-to-film rainmaker Lynn Pleshette. “We went out with Cold Mountain, which is an amazing piece of literature…Pre-publication…We couldn’t give it away…Until it landed on the New York Times bestseller list!” What’s the hope? “Great stories do find their way. But, it’s difficult. Most executives in Hollywood are very busy. They would rather read a two-paragraph review than five or ten pages of a book — much less 400 pages of book.”

The Contortionists Handbook

Book Discovery, then, science or art? “I do what everybody else does: ‘Will an audience respond to a story?’ ‘Is it unique?’” On his passion for Craig Clevenger’s The Contortionist’s Handbook, optioned multiple times, he says, “Ultimately it’s a character that immediately hooks you.” Such was the case with one of his favorite sales (Clifford Irving’s The Hoax) as well as one of his favorites still for sale, Peter Elbling’s The Food Taster. Mr. Aghassi has a thriller for which he estimates he has made fifty submissions: “…because it’s good.” He observes, “Sometimes passion gets in the way of paying the bills…” And sometimes it pays off: “I set a script up once on the seventieth submission — and it was the second time I’d sent that same script to that same person.”

Book Discovery in general? “Speculating on the percentage of published works that have a shot at becoming a film or television project is a great way to keep people from even trying to make it happen…I think of it as selling magic seeds — most of which will not find a buyer, and even if they do, it’s a very expensive product that we’re attempting to grow.”

What about representing a publisher or imprint?  “I represent a number of small — a  few — small publishers. The truth is I do the book business because I love it…[But] I can’t actively flood the market with a book every two weeks. It just doesn’t serve anybody to do that.” Do publisher-clients find representation beneficial during manuscript acquisition? “It probably provides some added value to publishers when they’re negotiating for those rights.” More art than science? “The deal making process is far more fluid than many people realize.”

“Jeff [Aghassi] made MacAdam/Cage an awful lot of money,” says Pat Walsh, former Editor-in-Chief of MacAdam/Cage, now consulting with the publisher on film rights, “He takes his fiduciary duty very seriously. He was my secret weapon for a long time.” Says Mr. Walsh of exploiting film rights, “You have to work with co-agents, really. There’s an awful lot of ways to waste your time. Find a few people you like and trust and stick to them. Because the game changes so often — there’s so many ways to get screwed.” Nonetheless, Mr. Walsh points out, “There’s probably ten movies made from MacAdam/Cage books. Maybe four or five times that have been optioned at one point or another. One night I turned on my on-demand and there were four of our movies, based on our books, [available for rent] at the same time.”

The Art of The Choice

“I’m not the most optimistic person to talk to…Nobody develops anything [like they used to] so I don’t have any interest in getting a book,” claims Academy Award-winning producer Sarah Ryan Black whose decades-long career in development includes The Breakfast Club at A&M Films; The Milagro Beanfield War while V.P. at Robert Redford’s Wildwood Films; Fried Green Tomatoes while at Norman Lear’s Act III; multiple Academy Award-winning Restoration starring Robert Downey, Jr.; Ransom for sale to Ron Howard; and many titles as Senior V.P. for Tom Cruise at Cruise/Wagner Productions. A recent books-to-film labor of love (East of Eden, replete with script by Academy Award-winner Christopher Hampton) was derailed by the recent courtroom battles of the Steinbeck heirs now heading to the U.S. Supreme Court. “There’s only one book I’m interested in at the moment…” So there is hope? “…which is this friend of mine’s book, and I’m going to try to get a bidding war going for the book. It just happens to be that perfect thing. And then get a movie deal at the same time,” she says, perfecting a circle: a books-to-film veteran who sees the only route to the Big Screen for her as getting the movie born as a book on Publishers Row. Asked for her thoughts about the recent Leonardo DiCaprio/Baz Luhramann deal to do The Great Gatsby in 3-D, she replied, “West Egg in 3-D? Go Gatsby…”

Open Questions

What other venerable backlist titles might be discovered for 3-D — or TV or indie or New Media or any of the multifarious channels available to the discovery-savvy and metadata-adept Rights Director? In an era where publisher profits are under attack from every quarter, does it make business sense that books-to-film rights buyers and agents — one of the most highly-specialized businesses in the publishing rights exploitation chain whose discovery decisions involve enormous financial risk (eventual film/TV budgets) — should be left to book discovery tools no more powerful than what general public uses in picking leisure reading?

BISG’s Scott Lubeck: “There’s just a lot of work to do. There’s no time to lose — and speed matters. Really, the opportunities [in] getting this right are enormous…And whether it’s film or exploiting the content in so many new ways that are available, these tools are essential to making that happen.”

Considering the Producers Guild of America, the Association of Talent Agents, the Talent Managers Association, the Directors Guild, the Writers Guilds (East and West), the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, certainly a receptive subscription list can be built up for an online film/TV rights news feed-cum-rights marketplace search and discovery tool or publication? How might this data stream be powered? What might it look like? Bowker’s Senior Vice President of Business Development Angela D’Agostino says, “Yes…if there’s an opportunity…I’d be very happy to explore that opportunity and see if there’s something that we could create…to demonstrate [the possibilities].

Peter Cook’s gravestone will likely read “playwright.” His Uranium + Peaches — a collaboration with Einstein protégé Leo Szilard’s biographer William Lanouette — was included in the season-long symposia of all things Manhattan Project by The Metropolitan Opera during its 125th anniversary season. Of late, he’s in collaboration with the former General Counsel of the third largest news and entertainment media conglomerate on an insider’s look-see into how the largest tax dodge in history began the slide to the largest media bankruptcy in history. Also, he loves books — and is fascinated by the extractive process of books-to-film. You can reach him at PeterCookWriter.com.

DISCUSS: Five Tips for Working with Hollywood as a Publisher or Author

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.