The Popularity of Adaptation

Some people find it much easier to deal with a dead person. Adaptations of novels, plays, magazine and newspaper stories and “true life” events are common and successful, especially in these reality-driven mass entertainment times.

Why adapt? Many producers find a dearth of truly original ideas in the marketplace, and in most adaptations, the narrative has already been worked out and the characters firmly established. Whether the source is a comic book, a cult Japanese horror movie, or a literary novel such as Atonement, an adaptation often brings along and expands its audience for the original version. Every sequel is really an adaptation of an original idea, and few blockbuster movies don’t derive their uniqueness from another medium or concept. Who would have thought that a Disneyland ride could yield the financial bonanza of Pirates of the Caribbean, which will keep the visual effects industry thriving for years to come?

But unlike the desperate screenwriter, itching to make a Faustian bargain if s/he can just get a real meeting, the rights holder of a published or previously made work holds all the cards. They own something the producer wants, and it usually requires a payment to balance out the situation. Some literary estates are sophisticated and knowledgeable about film rights; others are unscrupulous and greedy. All can be litigious, and uniformly will go after those who violate their copyright.

The success of a work in one medium does not guarantee the same fate for the film version, as many chastened producers will testify. Great movies often come from bad books (The Graduate), and many as many wonderful books have failed as films as have succeeded, as did Gone with the Wind.

Hollywood loves a literary pedigree, so its obsession with the book world is very real and can be lucrative, if the producer is fortunate enough to have the rights to the right book at the right time. If the book one is interested in is well-known, someone probably already took a pass at the rights, and may well own them.

Finding the Rights Holder

Find out who published the book, and the year of publication. Go to the publisher’s website to get a phone number, or check with your library for their guide to U.S. and international book publishers. Call the publisher (these discussions are best conducted person to person, rather than via email; it’s harder to get a person’s work email address than you think) concerning the status of the theatrical rights, and who represents the film rights to the book.

If the publisher is a major, get the name of the individual handling sub-rights. If the book has already been sold, ask for the contract department to determine the length of the current option. Many great properties were swept up the moment a previous option expired, by a buyer who had cash at hand.

Most plays are published by Samuel French or other specialized theatrical publishers, a good starting point to determine rights. The Dramatists Guild, the Writers Guild of America, East and the Theatre Guild can also be helpful resources.

Rights to specific published articles can be tracked down via the publisher of the magazine or newspaper. Recent court decisions have extended copyright protection to articles that appear on websites and blogs, considering these to be “publications” also. In some cases, the journalist or freelance writer will control film rights, but in most instances, the rights are owned by the corporation that employs the writer or pays the freelancer, or controls the publication that published the piece. Ownership of all film and video rights, and all devices yet to be devised (or some legal variation of that language), needs to be clarified before making any rights agreement.

These rights are often represented by one of dozens of literary agents, many of whom specialize in finding new or revived books as possible film concepts. The biggest agencies like CAA, ICM and William Morris all have significant numbers of agents in their book and film rights divisions, but there are key smaller New York-based agencies like Writers and Artists and Jody Hotchkiss. The Writers Guild of America (West and East) can supply more information about the most reputable agencies.


Once the rights holder has been identified, then it’s up to the producer to begin to hone the pitch for the story that will eventually lead to success or failure. Remember that it is the author who controls the rights to his or her work, not the publisher. Producers must convince the publisher to take them seriously enough to communicate their interest and offers to authors, without over-committing themselves financially.

The secret to good rights negotiations is the same as in all Hollywood bargaining: a producer should never be the first to mention the price he or she is prepared to pay. The producer’s job is to determine the seller’s expectations.

As described above concerning the option agreement with a spec screenplay, an option for another work, no matter in what medium it might already exist (there are rights for greeting cards!), should be a legal document. Again, the minimum option should if possible be a minimum of a year, with renewable extensions if both parties agree. Again, some financial consideration should be proffered and accepted, and should not take advantage of either party. If and when the option is exercised, there has be a clear and free assignment of all existing copyright to the buyer so that licenses can safely be sold for specified media in territories including the United States and Canada, and international rights.

The total purchase price for any screenplay, whether original or the underlying literary work behind an adaptation is usually due on the day that principal photography commences. Therefore, exercising options can be an expensive proposition, and should not be undertaken lightly. It can be difficult to coordinate production schedules around expiring rights options, so it is best to secure all underlying rights for as long a period as possible to provide maximum flexibility in financing and production.

Public Domain

The only time rights are not an issue is when the material is clearly and definitively in the public domain. That is why anyone who can buy a camera and has a male and female friend can do his or her own version of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare also borrowed all of his material from earlier sources, and now he sets the bar for what is available for free.

The necessary word of caution is never to assume that something is public domain. It used to be that way pre-1917 but there are too many exceptions to trust that date as a clear demarcation point between what’s free and what’s not. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has been safely in the grave these last hundred years or so, but do not try to make a Sherlock Holmes movie without the rights from the Conan Doyle estate. The author’s demise does not affect the copyright holder’s status for at least 75 years after the author’s death, and the way copyright law is being altered to fit corporate needs, it may soon reside with the current owner indefinitely.

The Bottom Line

One should not waste their time, or anyone else’s (including a screenwriter or a potential financier) with material whose underlying rights they do not control. If a deal can’t be made on a property because it’s too expensive or the estate is too difficult to deal with, it’s time to move on. There are many, many potential literary works available, often in the public domain or the headlines of the day. Updating and contemporizing classic stories is a time-tested and inexpensive way to access material that one has the potential to make commercial.

A great exercise for a producer is to outline the narrative structure, character progressions and arcs, act breaks and production challenges for any work under consideration for option. Once the stone of literary ornamentation is stripped away, and the statue revealed, an intelligent and informed decision can be made.