By Mike Springer
At first glance, the publishing and film industries appear quite similar: Both strive to bring stories to the widest possible audience; both make risky bets on what will sell. But the interests of the literary world and the interests of the movie world rarely overlap. The trick in dealing with Hollywood, says film producer David Gerson, is to understand when, and where, they do overlap.
“I think there is an enormous chasm of understanding between the publishing and the film industries,” Gerson says. “They’re two totally different industries and markets, which are driven by a completely different set of economics.”
Of the StoryDrive Conference at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year, Gerson said: “Hopefully people will find it interesting to get the perspective of the movie people about how we look to buy material, which you’ll find is always very different from what they think we’re looking for.”
Gerson has been in the movie business for 14 years. For six of those years he was Vice President for Development and Production at Focus Features, where he helped develop such films as Reservation Road, Milk and Away We Go. He is currently a producer at Nick Wechsler Productions in Los Angeles, with several projects in the works, including an adaptation of British novelist Simon Lewis’s thriller, Bad Traffic, set in the Chinese underworld of London.
“What the panel [at the StoryDrive Conference] will hopefully accomplish,” Gerson says, “is to give a little more insight to people in publishing who know they have an amazing book in their hands but aren’t quite sure if that necessarily means an amazing movie.” Some amazing books are difficult to translate into visual narratives. “Reading Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is one thing,” Gerson says. “It’s an incredible read, an amazing author. But taking that and turning it into a monetized film property is a whole different kettle of fish.”
Sometimes, says Gerson, producers will gamble on a hit book in the hope that literary success will draw enough interest from big-name actors, directors and screenwriters to secure financing for a film. But in the end, market forces win out. He cites Jonathan Franzen’s work as an example: “You’d think The Corrections would already have been made and pushed through the Hollywood machine,” he says, “but it’s in a little bit of a development rut right now.”
One problem with a family drama like The Corrections, says Gerson, is that very few people are buying tickets to see family dramas these days. “Over the past three years the dramas have been getting murdered in the film market,” he says. Audiences aren’t going to see them, they’re not spending money on them, and with one or two notable exceptions this year, every indie film has failed, and in a lot of instances quite miserably. And those tend to be dramas.”
So, even when a book can be translated beautifully into film, there may not be a large-enough audience to make it work economically. This can be hard to appreciate from the perspective of the literary world, where audience demographics and production costs are radically different.
“Sometimes,” says Gerson, “people will come in and say, ‘This is a great book.’ We’ll say, ‘Yeah it is, but I don’t know if I can sell it.’ Then they’ll say, ‘I want a million dollars to option it.’ We’ll say, ‘That’s just crazy, because this movie is a five million dollar movie. There’s no version of this in which it’s a $60 million movie, so nobody is going to pay what you want.’”
The conceptual chasm between the book and screen trades is too wide to be crossed in a single leap, says Gerson. His hope, as he headed to Frankfurt, is simply to keep the dialogue moving. “It’s just chipping away at the stone,” he says.