By Daniel Kalder
Since the dawn of cinema, movie producers have been ransacking books for source material. Nothing has changed: today, says Anna Soler-Pont, director of the Barcelona-based Pontas Literary & Film Agency “30% of films are based on books” and the number is increasing. Soler-Pont founded her agency in 1992 at age 24, and today represents a roster of authors from all over the world “as long as someone in the team can read them and work closely with them.” Her career has been marked by close collaboration with movie producers, and she recently established her own film production company, Pontas Films.
“I’ve always been a great cinephile and since the very beginning of my company, back in the early 90s, I was always trying to approach film producers with novels, trying to convince them there was a film inside,” says Pontas. “…the world is driven by images and producers need content and ideas which are inside books.”
It’s not just content and ideas that attract movie producers, however. Says Pontas:
“Once a Hollywood studio executive told me that they felt that having a book behind a film was better for a project because “they could always go back to the book if something went wrong” — for instance, if there was a change of scriptwriter, or they had any doubts about a character…”
Soler-Pont actively courts movie producers, seeking them out where they gather, bringing her clients’ books to their attention: “Every year The Pontas Agency attends the main international film markets and festivals-for instance, Berlin, Cannes, Los Angeles. And this is rare: we are among the very few literary agents who regularly attend those events. But it’s difficult to get to know how the film industry works when you are an outsider; it takes time to know who is who, and who is really buying the book rights, who is doing what…The film industry is far larger and more complex than the publishing industry, simply because far more people are involved in a film than in a book.”
Soler-Pont says the team at her agency is “always” in search of novels with film potential. “We have this in mind every time we sign up a new client. However, we represent literature, not original screenplays, therefore the novels have to read as novels, not as adapted screenplays! The screenplay will come afterwards. It is a fragile border, and we’re always in between.”
As to what constitutes film potential, there is no great mystery: “A good plot, strong characters… The genre doesn’t matter: if you read a book and you already see the images, that´s good, adaptable content.”
In all her dealings with movie studios and producers, Soler-Pont says it was a film that was never made that she learned the most from. “In December 2000, the actor Russell Crowe (who had then been nominated for an Oscar for Gladiator) showed interest in the writing of one of our clients, the New Zealand author Alan Duff. We ended up meeting in Los Angeles and signing a contract with Castle Rock/Warner Bros for the rights of a short story Russell Crowe and Alan Duff wrote together and for the screenplay services of Alan Duff. Seeing an actor so passionate about a plot that had to be written first and then taken to the screen, involving a studio at the level he did, was really inspiring.”
One film that has been made is the adaptation of Swedish author (and Pontas client) Jonas Jonasson’s international bestseller The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, which has sold six million copies all over the world. Pontas sold the adaptation rights in 2010, and says: “Literally every Swedish film production company showed interest.” The film premiered Christmas Day 2013 in Scandinavia.
Starting her own film production company was an unexpected but “natural” event, says Pontas: “We were always so passionately trying to convince producers to acquire the rights of a novel that at a certain point, we started to do film packaging—looking for a director, approaching scriptwriters, even investing in treatments — until someone told me that was the producers’ job, not the literary agent’s one, and that nobody would pay us for that work done! This and the will to bring some specific stories to the screen made us decide to launch our own production company, Pontas Films. We currently have three film projects in development, one of them, Granados, is the adaptation of John Milton´s The Falling Nightingale, about the last years of Catalan composer Enric Granados, and another is Traces of Sandalwood, directed by Maria Ripoll and with Indian actress Nandita Das.
Soler-Pont has even written screenplays. This is part, she says of a larger experiment that began with her writing a novel that was initially published in Catalan and Spanish in 2007, and subsequently published in eleven other languages. She then adapted it into a screenplay: “I couldn’t help it—as a literary agent I needed to know what writing a novel was about and what adapting a novel was about too! …It took me several years to write the novel and several more years to get the final draft of the script, because I only devoted one or two hours per day, that’s all! But I never failed to do it — that was the secret!”
Soler-Pont however has no intention of bringing all film production in-house. “Pontas Films can´t produce too much, it’s just starting. Since Pontas Agency and Pontas Films are two different companies, of course Pontas Agency will keep in touch constantly with producers from all over the world to sell them literary properties to adapt.”
Soler- Pont says the “soul is similar” in the work of literary agents and film producers. “Literary agents are managers of the others’ careers, they are representatives in front of everyone… it’s about managing properly (writers want to make a living out of their writing!) giving good directions, being there, reading, accompanying, being informed about the constant changes of the publishing industry, attending book fairs…”
There is a major difference however:
“Literary agents don’t need to produce or invest anything themselves, we’re only rights sellers who work on commission. Film producers are content finders but also money finders: and they really need to build something up and get the funds to do it! Film producers can’t do anything alone with a computer and a cell phone: they need a large team of tens of professionals, and they have to pay them if they want the film made!”
Soler-Pont says that her authors are “always happy” with any extra money they can get and they are “usually thrilled with the film idea.” But what if they despise the finished product, as happens so often? Says Soler-Pont: “Before they sign an adaptation contract, I always remind them that the film is going to be a “free translation,” a completely different product. And they have to be ready for it! The original or the literary translations into other languages will remain untouchable on the shelves. But the film will have a different, parallel life and everyone involved, from the scriptwriter to the director, the director of photography or the composer of the soundtrack will have things to say that will leave the book behind.”
Aside from more money, Soler-Pont says that the main benefit of working so closely with film studios is: “Learning. I’m a very curious person and anything that can bring me new information and understanding of how things work is important.”