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The 1,000-to-1 Long Shot: How Hollywood Decides What Books Hit the Silver Screen

In the first of a two part series, we talk to ICM’s Josie Freedman and other insiders about how Hollywood agents, publishers and producers decide which books would make good movies.
Read Part Two of this article in which we continue the conversation with books-to-film agent Jeff Aghassi and producer Sarah Ryan Black.

By Peter Cook

If the supply (books published) and the demand (books adapted) were stacked side-by-side, the adaptations stack would rise to the height of a good-sized film/TV rights agent while the titles available to be discovered would rise to twice the height of the Empire State Building (including the antenna atop the needle). Bowker (“Book Industry Report, New Book Titles & Editions, 2002-2009”) calculates the supply side: 45,181 new works of fiction in 2009—about a 125 books a day hit the shelves; Hollywood financial data purveyor Nash Information Services (the-numbers.com) sketches the demand: about a hundred books a year hit the screens. From its listing of “Top-Grossing Movie Sources,” books, short stories, comics, graphic novels, legends, fairy tales and “factual” books together tally up to 29% of the Box Office bonanza — about $3.5 billion per year*. Is this surfeit of literature boon or bane to those who must winnow and pluck then package and present the film/TV rights offerings to that most exacting of marketplaces — Hollywood?

The Art of Discovery at ICM

Josie Freedman

ICM's Josie Freedman asks, "What's the commerciality of the material?"

“Oh, I think it’s great!” avers Josie Freedman, Co-head of the Media Rights Department (with Nick Harris) at international powerhouse ICM (International Creative Management). Since joining ICM a decade ago from The Gersh Agency, Ms. Freedman’s discerning eye has brought to market such eminently filmable books as Christopher Buckley’s award-winning Thank You For Smoking and his best-selling Boomsday. Are laurels and stellar sales receipts a prerequisite to gaining her attention? “No, not at all — not…at…all,” she assures. How, then, to decide where to devote resources? “Well, you sort of mull it over in your head and figure out if, you know, your first instinct is ‘Can I sell it?’ and ‘What is the commerciality of the material?’ and ‘Does it hit a moment?’ For example, Young Adult seems to be the material of the moment and within that space there are certain things that sell. I think dystopian, YA — there’s a been glut in the market…”

However, nothing reveals the value of impassioned advocacy better than overcoming perceptions like “glut.” Last month’s sale to 20th Century Fox for Alexandra Bracken’s Black is the Color (a YA dystopian tale) exemplifies the power of differentiation. Although the book won’t sell its first copy until next summer, its distinguishing love story against a dystopian backdrop combined with the ICM aegis wins a payday. “We’re selective with the material we decide to take on,” explains Ms. Freedman. “We don’t flood the marketplace with endless submissions…”

This exclusivity, she proffers, translates to a more serious consideration by prospective rights buyers. “There’s a certain standard…Most of the time, it’s material that people pay attention to. I’m not saying it’s the easy material. Some of it, in fact, is quite the opposite. It’s very difficult…It certainly either has some sort of patina to it, or it may be wildly commercial at the moment, but at the end of the day, it’s all great stuff.” To buttress this broad claim, ICM might point to last winter’s re-optioning Nancy Milford’s beautiful biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Savage Beauty, or last fall’s rights sale of William Kotzwinkle’s Walter the Farting Dog.

Certainly the long-perfected circuitry that connects author’s agents to film rights agents keeps the pipeline well-primed, but the market’s unslakable thirst for story means discovering new material can’t rely on the telephone ringing. The make-or-break pressure on producers/rights buyers to make profitable story decisions creates manifold opportunities for suppliers; from next year’s tent poles and franchises for movies to a now-perennial TV pilot market with seemingly illimitable channels to fill to the amoeba-like growth of the “indie” world to the unknown frontiers of New Media, producers need that next new thing now.

Therefore, the complex of author’s agents hawking their newly-minted deals gets augmented by what other means of discovery? “We have a very large backlist of material that is active. The authors that we represent have catalogs of books…It’s a very extensive list,” explains Ms. Freedman, who then lists her panoply of discovery tools: “Blogs, the Internet, the bestseller lists, the New York Times reviewers, scouts…Twitter.” Which Twitter sites? “Certain Twitter sites…[also] Goodreads[dot com].” Any industry-specific search engines? “Ah, no…No,” says this expert from her vantage atop an industry leader. To date, no dedicated film/TV rights-driven, online-optimized feed or database exists to serve her Book Discovery needs.

Just one recent bestseller to reach "theaters near you."

What about the very idea of a direct link between publishers and rights buyers? “I think that’s absolutely, urgently needed and it’s at the heart of the work that we’re doing,” says Scott Lubeck, Executive Director of the Book Industry Study Group (profiled recently by Publishing Perspectives). The first week of this month found BISG front and center with its Making Information Pay Conference — a full-throated evangel on metadata as the lifeblood not only of the publishing supply chain but also of rights marketing. Despite characterizing the industry-wide state of metadata, its readiness, accuracy and deployment to full potential as presently “not pretty,” Mr. Lubeck’s deployment of resources demonstrates the industry’s commitment to seize the moment: “There is a recognition of this as you can see in this meeting…it’s the central focus…We have another track in this conference which is about Discoverability and talks about the importance of semantics in Discovery [“Smart Content: The Importance of Semantics in Publishing,” by Pearson’s Madi Solomon, Member of BISG Rights Committee and Metadata Committee]. So these are now a central focus.” Full speed ahead, indeed, though Mr. Lubeck would caution the panacea-hunter: “There’s a lot of work that goes just to be able to develop a set of taxonomies that enables an online browser to quickly get at that content’s needle-in-a-haystack.”

A Rising Tide of Book Options

Egan's Pulitzer-winner is one of the recent literary hits to be optioned for film.

Why bother? Just what are the stakes? How lucrative is the film/TV rights market? In her 367-page compendium Selling Rights (Routledge, 2006), Lynette Owen, who was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for her service to the publishing industry and international trade, offers a rule of thumb (at p.252): “The proportion of films based on literary works should be seen in the context that between 5% and 10% of options are exercised and of those perhaps one in ten finally proceeds to production…” Like any rule of thumb, its reasonableness outweighs its precision. Working backwards, if the number of books optioned that survive past the green light and make it to a premiere night represents 1%, and about a hundred films make it all the way each year, that points to 10,000 to 20,000 annual option sales at bottom. An attempt to put an average value on these, however, signals the end of the knowable world. Short of polling a few thousand producers and a few hundred thousand publishers, an accounting remains elusive.  Perhaps it best to borrow an often-borrowed New England Yankee truism: a rising tide floats all boats.

Illustrative of the seemingly bottomless depth of the publisher/rights-buyer chasm as well as the bizarre proximity of the chasm’s ledges, consider the recent National Book Critics Circle Award night. Among those honored by the critics were both Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Egan and Dalkey Archive Press founder John O’Brien. Since then, ICM landed Ms. Egan an HBO series development deal for her The Sopranos-inspired A Visit From the Goon Squad. Mr. O’Brien was acknowledged for a lifetime of lovingly bringing to market hundreds upon hundreds of exquisite, largely character-driven works of literary art, often free from the confines of plot, that would otherwise have been lost, unpublished, untranslated or otherwise abandoned. Over the years, by lightning-strike chance, Hollywood has found a few Dalkey Archive Press titles: William Eastlake’s Castle Keep with Burt Lancaster amid a galaxy of stars; Nicholas Mosley’s Accident, adapted by Harold Pinter; and, most recently, from a Dalkey Archive Press short story collection entitled The Barnum Museum, a fantastical piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and short story master, Steven Millhauser called, “Eisenheim the Illusionist.” Here the ledges over the chasm that is “Commerciality” come awfully close to touching. Mr. Millhauser’s agent — ICM, no less — sold this short story to producers who made the film for $16.5 million. To date, The Illusionist has grossed $122.5 million. Mr. O’Brien reports, “…we did not have the movie rights to this, but we saw a substantial bump in sales.”

Has ICM ever considered representing a publisher or an imprint? “Sure, it’s conceivable…We have considered it,” Ms. Freedman allows. Asked if she can think of a way — other than serendipity — where she might come to discover the untold constellations in the backlists of untold smaller publishers, she politely humors the questioner, “Not that I know of, no.”

What if there was some sort of film/TV rights industry-specific search engine tapped into the publishing industry’s internal data stream? Ms. Freedman offers, “If you were talking about a search engine, I would say a search engine is difficult because peoples’ needs and wants change often…If there was a search engine, it would have to be updated fairly constantly.”

Tomorrow, we continue the conversation, with books-to-film agent Jeff Aghassi about the payoff for persistence, and offer more on the acute need for better book discovery tools for the industry.

*While the-numbers.com provides precise numbers, categorization still remains subjective; scrutiny of titles within the categories supplied by Nash Information Services reveals a border that may range from 29% of the market to as much as 33%–depending on how certain titles might be viewed.  Essentially, Hollywood loves books:  As Lynette Owen points out (Selling Rights, p.252), “42% of the Oscars® awarded for best picture are based on novels…”

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: Hollywood and Book Publishing, Never the Twain Shall Meet?

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7 Comments

  1. Posted May 17, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Peter for an insightful article (with great links), especially for people with dreams to write with passion, and believe their calling IS about sharing their stories with the world. AND to have this appear in film!!

    I just saw a Tweet about @LynneEllison1 author of The Green Bronze Mirror http://j.mp/dSU5af
    She wrote this at 14. and I thought, “How great is that!”, and wanted to just put her dream out there to the universe. Who knows???

    Anyway, thanks, and I look forward to Part 2.

    ps I am also writing a screenplay… Ugh! It’s coming in such s l o w drips, and I really wanted Niagra Falls. Anyway, it’s about the missing years of Jesus and ties powerfully into the transition work I have been doing with my clients for over 35 years.

  2. Posted May 17, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Permalink
  3. Posted May 20, 2011 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the info. This is my first book and I must have the attention of famous women for it to soar. I have been learning so much from marrying ISBN’s with barcodes, to server service and web design. And it seems I,m just getting started. I originally pictured the process so simple and quick. Wow! There is so much to learn. I am thankful for those trailblaizers before me. Thanks again, Ken

  4. Posted July 3, 2012 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    To: Ms. Josie Freedman, Media Rights Department
    Dear Ms. Freedman:

    Do you agent Copy Righted Novels?
    I write in cross genre fiction and film scripts. My novel,”Feral World”, was published in 2004 is now out ,of print. Would yu accept a logline and synopsis the book, I also have a treatment of the book.
    Sincerely yours,
    J R Dittbrenner

  5. Posted October 15, 2012 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Thank you for the informative and interesting information. I have written five published books, my SHAKING trilogy: SHAKING/ HEAD BOY / STILL SHAKING. Also two children’s books: THE ENCHANTED NURSERY: NESSIE’S FRIENDS and THE ENCHANTED NURSERY2. I have also written four screenplay adaptations: JIMMY a two hour comedy-drama / A GOOD MOVE a half-hour comedy / HEATHER AND HAMISH a adaptation for animation of one of my children’s stories. “SHOULD WE STILL GO?” a short screenplay regarding a personal dilemma post 9/11

    I have cerebral palsy and because of my disability I have limitations on what I can do. I hope that through my writing I can achieve my potential, and provide readers and viewers with enjoyment

  6. Posted October 16, 2012 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Hello Ms. Josie Freedman – Media Rights Department
    I am a published author of three books, trying to get a professional agent, that can help get my books turned into a pilot, series on HBO, and also a movie. With all the scammers out there, I like your record of helping people, rather than taking advantage of them. Artist appreciate people such as yourself, and the way you handle situations. Please get back to me and let’s see if we can talk and hopefully work together.
    Thank you for your time, as I wish you and your company much continued success.
    Robert Womack

  7. Virgil Westdale
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    My book “Blue Skies and Thunder” is a memoir of a Farm Boy, Commerial Pilot, Inventor, TSA Seurity Officer, Soldier in WWII with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and Recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal. I do wonder if Ms. Josie Freedman would have any interest in checking further?

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