Turning Books Into Films: 3 Key Questions

entertainment-book.jpgAdaptations of novels have always been a cornerstone of both independent and Hollywood film production. There are good reasons for this popularity: using a book as source material can bring an established fan base and plot structure to work with, but adaptations also have drawbacks. Without proper legal foundations, any book-to-film adaptation can be destined to fail. Whether you are an author looking to have a film produced based on your book or a filmmaker looking to adapt an existing novel, there are several key legal questions that need to be answered before moving forward with production.

Who owns the rights?

The first step in making an adaptation of a book is determining who owns the rights to do so. The author of the work does not necessarily own these rights. Depending on the specifics of the contract signed between the author and the publisher, the right to derivative works (including films) may belong solely to the publisher. In the case of certain older books, the rights to make a film may be in the public domain. After determining the owner of the copyright, you will need to contact that individual and work out a contract in which you acquire these rights. Films based on works in the public domain can be produced without seeking permission from any other parties, but it is important to be absolutely certain that a work is in the public domain before beginning production.

How are rights purchased and sold?

Typically, the process of acquiring the rights to adapt a book begins with the purchase and sale of an option. An option allows a studio to reserve the right to make a work into a film for a specific period of time. This period tends to begin with a one year term, with further options to renew for additional one year terms. Options tend to be relatively cheap—the market favors the small number of producers over the large number of authors, so options will usually command between a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.
Producers may choose to purchase a vast number of options, while only a select few actually go into production. The purchase price paid to the author will be much more substantial than the option—usually between two and three percent of the entire production budget. This could range from a few thousand dollars for a smaller, independent film to several hundred thousand dollars for a Hollywood blockbuster. The amount and method of calculating the purchase price and the option price can be negotiated, though—linking payment to a film’s financial success can allow an author to be fairly compensated for a successful film, and placing a floor or ceiling on payments can prevent payment from being lower (or higher) than expected by either of the parties.

Who will control the project?

A lot of negotiated and complex contract drafting can go into both the option and the actual purchase of the rights. Beyond the more obvious financial considerations, one of the most important (and often neglected) provisions in these agreements is the determination of creative control. Failure to come to an agreement on this point inevitably leads to disagreements and unmet expectations. A producer will usually want to mold the subject matter to meet their creative (and financial) vision, while the author will have their own unique interpretation in mind, and may object to certain changes that the producer wants to make. Take care to address this creative control during contract drafting and negotiations to prevent future headaches and save everyone time, money and stress.

We Can Help

From start to finish, whether as a producer or as an author, the adaptation of a book into a film is a process that should be undertaken with great care and with the guidance of an experienced attorney. To meet with a Bailey Law Firm attorney to discuss these and any other questions, please contact us by clicking here or by calling our office at 832.510.2900 to schedule a complimentary consultation.

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