Hollywood and Book Publishing, Never the Twain Shall Meet?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

Interview with Pat Walsh, the former editor-in-chief of MacAdam/Cage on how book publishing and Hollywood do (and don’t) get along.

By Edward Nawotka

MacAdam/Cage did the book, Rachel McAdams starred in the movie

It’s often presumed that the culture of Hollywood and that of book publishing are about as far apart as California and New York. Often, you hear embarrassing stories about each trying to cross-over into the other’s territory. But what of California publishers, maybe they have the best of both worlds? MacAdam/Cage, currently beleaguered but with a strong back list, has had a great deal of success selling books to Hollywood — some 20% of its backlist has been optioned, the biggest example of which is the adaptation that was shot of the company’s mega-bestseller The Time Traveler’s Wife, which hit theaters in 2009. Pat Walsh, the company’s former editor-in-chief, currently handles film rights for the publisher. He spoke with Peter Cook, author of today’s feature on book-to-film deals to share some insight from the publishers side on working with Hollywood.

A few excerpts:

Pat Walsh

On making money at it — how much, how often:

We negotiate for film rights whenever we could get them — even to the point of walking away from projects if we didn’t. We really counted on it [film rights] being an important source of our income. You get a floor and ceiling on the purchase price — and those can be, y’know, up to a million bucks. So it’s an awful lot. You hit once and it’s a huge payday. With fiction it’s very hard to make a million dollars.  It’s really helps us, as we say, “do it again next year. You can either actively try and sell…it’s time-consuming, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll make any money on it.  But, eventually, you play enough longshots, one of them comes through.

On working with Hollywood:

It’s a completely different culture than that of publishing. The fun is producers and studios tend to…[they] buy the movies, they talk to you a lot during the contracting, then you sign the contract, then they don’t want to talk to you anymore. They have no interest in talking to you anymore—about anything. They will do their duty if you track them down—to tell you where things are at….It’s really hard to find out what the hell’s going on.

What they want to do is buy the thing from you, not talk to you. One day they will fly the author down to the set. They give them a tour.  They meet the actors and have lunch on the set. They will give them a Directors Chair with their name on the back. And then the cast and crew will give them a round of applause. Then they’re going to put your ass back a on plane — and get you off their set. And say, “see you at the premiere.” That’s the sort of involvement they want after they make the deal. There’s already too many cooks.

A war story:

We had one [book] under contract and they very quietly renewed the option. And they very quietly renewed it again — a third option. And then I got this frantic phone call one day — years later! — saying: “Listen, we’re exercising the option, we making this thing. We start filming in three weeks. But we realized the option expires at midnight tonight. So I’m going to put an intern on a plane with a check so that we don’t lose the rights unless you’ll give a one-day extension so I can use FedEx.” So I said, “Great…Tell me about the movie.” And they said, “Well, it’s filming and we got this big star in it.” I said, “Well, how is different from the book?” And she says, “Tell you the truth, I haven’t read the book. It’s been in turn-around 3 or 4 times, we’ve had 2 or 3 scripts.” She says, “You tell me what the book is about and I’ll tell you what’s different in the movie.”

So, I — I really don’t want to embarrass anyone down there [L.A.]…I don’t know if it’s that big a deal anymore, it’s been years ago…But I said, “It’s about a woman whose grandfather and father cheated on her grandmother and mother and she vowed not to let that happen and she married a black football player, they lived in Ann Arbor, and they were married for twenty-five years very happily, then he cheated on her and left her. And it’s about the emotional fallout from that, kids and all that.” And the woman said “Well, it [the movie] doesn’t take place in Ann Arbor, it takes place in New Orleans; he’s not a black football player, he’s a white architect, they don’t have any kids and he doesn’t do the cheating — she does.” I’m like, “SHE cheats?!” She’s the cheater in the relationship?” “Yeah,” [says the movie producer].

I said, “You DO know this is a memoir — and not a novel, right?” And then there’s dead silence at the other end and she goes “I don’t … I think we’ve…lost…track…of …that.” So they took this woman’s life and…she says, ah…Suddenly there’s a flurry of calls from the people that insure the film: They don’t have life rights. You know, you do a memoir, you have to get people’s permission to portray them on film. People have an inherent right to privacy in the Constitution. And a corresponding inherent to [control your own] publicity. So they had to track everyone down — or change them so much that they were unrecognizable to a casual acquaintance. And so we could have held them up, held up the production and so forth — but we cooperated. The author said, “It’s so different it doesn’t even matter. It’s not even my life.” So they paid her as a consultant and treated her real well, flew her down to the set…But that was a funny story about what could happen…They start asking, “Well, what if we do this…What if it was the other that cheats…You can almost see the Hollywoodization of a book…Luckily it had a good ending: The author got to put her kid through Columbia with that money. So, y’know…We all saw it as a win. That taught me not to lose track of it. Now, when I do a contract I want at least consultation on a script…

Share your own Hollywood war story in the comments below.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.