Quick Update on Film/TV Stuff
Posted on March 31, 2017 Posted by John Scalzi 38 Comments
Because the announcement of the TV deal for The Collapsing Empire has people asking questions, let me quickly catch everyone up.
Here’s where everything stands at the moment. I have four active options at the moment: The Collapsing Empire, Old Man’s War and Redshirts, and a project I can’t talk about yet (but which has been optioned and for which I’ve been paid). I have three other properties that are currently in discussion, which I also can’t talk about yet, but will when I can. Lock In was under option but isn’t now but could be again, hint hint, film/TV people.
All the active options are at various stages in their development processes and it should be noted at any step in that process, a trap door could open up and swallow the project whole. The time to get excited about any optioned work making it to the screen is when you’re actually watching it on the screen. Until then, it doesn’t exist. Projects can literally take years to happen, even when they are actively being worked on. For these as anything, patience is a virtue.
For those wondering if I’m actively involved in these projects, as a general rule at this point we negotiate me being an executive producer on the project. What this means can range depending on project, but generally means that I’ll be looking at scripts and offering other input. I’m open to writing or co-writing scripts, but often the producers already have people they like lined up for that.
Generally speaking producers and studios like to play things close to the vest, announcement-wise, until there is actually something really big to announce (like greenlighting, principal photography, casting news, etc). Often I will have projects under option that I can’t announce or talk publicly about, because we follow the lead of the people who have secured the option. If I talk about something it’s because I’ve been given clearance to talk about it. I won’t talk about stuff I don’t have clearance for, although I might subtweet about how there’s a cool thing I know that you don’t.
No, I can’t get you a job with the production. No, I can’t hire you to write the screenplay. No, I can’t help you get contacts with the production companies/studios I work with. This is especially the case if I don’t, you know, actually know you as a real live human being. No, please don’t send me screenplays/headshots/etc. I’m not responsible for any of those things. Also generally I don’t cast projects in my head until/unless they get to a point where producers ask me for casting ideas.
Yes, I’m excited about each of these. I would love for one or more to be made and to be a huge hit. No, I will not become rich on film/TV options or at least not for a long time (they pay relatively little up front; the big money is on the back end). And yes, regardless of the success (or not) of any of these, I’ll still be writing the novels I have under contract for Tor. It’s why I have a contract.
(And no, I won’t be moving to LA anytime soon. I love visiting; it’s where I grew up, after all. But I like my house and the at least 500 feet between me and any other neighbor. If anything gets made and they need me on set, I have it in my contracts the production company has to rent me an apartment.)
So that’s where everything is on film and TV deals at the moment.
Also, if you’re someone who wants to option something of mine for film/TV, the person to talk to is my film/TV agent, Joel Gotler, at the Intellectual Property Group.
“…. although I might subtweet about how there’s a cool thing I know that you don’t.”
In all seriousness, though, thanks for the insight into the internals of the optioned-works process. It’s a world I’ll almost certainly never see, and it’s interesting to see how these things work.
Thanks for the info! It’s nice to get an idea of what is really involved in getting a story to tv/film.
All interesting stuff. I am curious though about video game adaptations. Do you generally sell video game rights along with TV/Movie rights, or do they get sold off separately?
Depends on the property.
(“Depends on the property,” by the way, the answer to many questions like yours.)
But you’d really, really be impressed by my headshot. ;)
As a writer, is it frustrating to watch things languish in development and seemingly go nowhere (or take forever)? Or is it more like ‘I got a check and don’t have to do anything, but a TV show would be cool if it ever happens”?
Okay fine. You don’t have to feel bad about me not getting hired to do the TV adaptation of “The Rough Guide to Money Online”. Instead I’ll settle with being a character who immediately dies in your next book.
Heck, I’ll even write it for you. Just cut and paste this right in!
“While walking out of the grocery store, John Hattan stopped to buy some Girl Scout cookies. He then clutched his chest and dropped dead. The Girl Scouts called 911 after cleaning out his wallet.”
Damn, I’m friggin’ Shakespeare.
Do you get any say in things like whether your characters get whitewashed?
I totally cast things in my head. LOL It does seem like SF is having a big TV/movie resurgence so I will keep my fingers crossed that we will see some Scalzi property on some screen soon.
This might be an “it depends on the property” question, but how long does an option typically last? 2-3 years, then the option holder can renew (presumably at a pre-negotiated price) if it is getting somewhere/hand it back if not? That’d fit in with Lock In being out from option again. Which is odd to me, as I don’t think it’d be that expensive to film and it is a really intriguing concept. Waiting for the book sequel here.
I thought that Lock In was at some stage of development? Is it an example of a project that got swallowed whole or was it left out?
Game of Thrones and The Expanse certainly seem to have benefited from having the writers closely involved with the TV show… certainly looking forward to seeing any and all of these coming to the screen! Have you, or will you be, trying your hand at TV scripts on any shows before they do (or anything you are especially waiting to be invited to write for? :) )?
I _so_ want your project that you can’t talk about to be Agent to the Stars. In my head my dream cast would be:
Tom Hanks as Carl
Jessica Chastain as Miranda
Adam Driver as Tom
Cara Delevingne as Michelle (maybe Chloë Grace Moretz)
Hollywood would eat that story up…
As exec producer, will you be able to exert any influence in ensuring diversity behind the camera or in key creative roles? Obviously, as you say, the producers will have people in mind – but will you be in a position to use your powers for good?
With regard to Empire, I noted it as a priority, in front and behind cameras, and this was something readily and happily agreed to. And it’s something I generally ask for and encourage for all my projects.
Miranda is explicitly Hispanic, so as much as I love Ms. Chastain, she would not be right for that role.
They just ran out of time and chose not to renew the option.
I’d rather they take time and get it right than rush and screw it up. I’m not hurting for money.
Hoping the mystery option is for your magnum opus.
Of course I’m referring to Shadow War of the Night Dragons.
Of course, now that you remind me of that. It’s been about 5 years since I read it. For some reason I had recalled a strong willed but cool tempered redhead as Miranda.
Well Rosario Dawson then.
If I’d gotten to ask my “second” question at your Richmond Virginia appearance, it would have been which TV/film/stage/musical/video game/web series/comic book, adaptions of your work (that you could talk about) were you most excited about. (It was actually going to be my “first” /only question, but I asked a spur of the moment one instead.) This pretty much answers that. Thanks!
ps. I to, am available to be a character who dies immediately and horribly, in an exploding squirrel accident on a golf course, say. ;)
That’s great to hear, thank you!
Joe Haldeman has said that a writer is best off having a movie studio continue to option his/her property on a yearly basis and never use it. Once the movie is produced, the writer gets a single big check and the yearly check stops. I think he was talking about “The Forever War.”
I guess it is like the difference between getting an annuity versus a lump-sum payment. Of course, an annuity doesn’t look as good up on the silver screen…
For those of us not privy to the development cycle of “Film/TV Stuff”, would you be able to offer a generic, “not depending on the property”, version of what things need to happen between optioning and actual production?
All I know is that I’m looking forwards to the end product.
I didn’t know about much of the VD stuff until I read the comments at Ars Technica. Good job at ignoring those who troll.
Thanks but that’s not on topic for this thread, so let’s table that discussion for now.
All terrifically exciting news! I’ve always thought Old Man’s War would be a terrific HBO series. My non-reader (he can; just doesn’t) husband has patiently listened to the summary of OMW time and again and he agrees, especially if there’ll be Game of Thrones type nudity.
Just wanted to say ‘thanks’ for reigniting my love of sci-fi lit. Just finished The Collapsing Empire — loved it — will be anxiously awaiting the sequel and/or film adaptation.
To help you put the option stuff in perspective:
A typical option is five figures, anywhere from low to high. That’s very nice for an author. Because it’s Free Money! It’s not big money if you’re in John’s (or my) bracket… but it’s Free! For many authors, too, it’s big money.
It’s chump change compared to the production costs for a TV show or movie. A science fiction TV pilot’s going to run seven figures. A seasons worth of shows are going to cost eight figures. A feature-length movie will be low nine figures. That nice bit of Free Money is hundredths or thousandths of what a studio is going to spend if it goes all the way.
Studios option ten (a hundred?) times as many properties as they decide to go forward on. They’re just hedging their bets; it’s not serious money compared to the investment they’d have to make to follow through.
Option money is a very nice thing, but the odds are still against (strongly against) it ever making it to the screen.
It’s rather like if someone came up to you and offered you a $10 bill as an option to buy your car or $100 as an option to buy your house. You don’t take it very seriously. Sure, they might. But very likely they won’t.
Down the line there’s bigger money. Contracts will include some or all of the following: additional (larger) payments for hiring a scriptwriter, for making a TV pilot, for getting the pilot on the air, for getting picked up for a full season, for producing enough episodes to go into syndication, etc. As John said, it depends on the deal. All of that is money you are not likely to see.
Now, a bit of advice for authors who haven’t been down this road before. Make sure your agent knows how to read TV/movie contracts. They are not the same as book contracts, they even use different terms of art. The known “gotchas” are different. You can have a great literary agent who is crap at media contracts. That will screw you in little ways or in huge ways down the line.
If you don’t know how to read those kind of contracts and you aren’t sure your agent is good at them, it’s worth buying an hour or so of time from an attorney who is knowledgeable about these things (contact Lawyers for the Arts if they’re in your area). Sure, you might be out a few hundred dollars before you’re done, but you’re getting tens of thousands of dollars in Free Money, so it’s good insurance to make sure the studio is not doing something really nasty to you. Like tying up all future sequels or all the characters in the book in perpetuity or… Well, use your imagination. It’s Hollywood. It happens.
– Pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
— Ctein’s Online Gallery. http://ctein.com
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Well…I’d be very nervous at how Lock In would be handled, so I am sortakindaglad that option ran out. Sorry! I hope if it ever happens you get some reaaaaaally good handling of it.
Good luck with the options proceeding further, hopefully all the way to production.
On that note, I really like this bit:
“I have it in my contracts the production company has to rent me an apartment.”
That’s both cool, and foresighted on your part.
Interesting timing, because the same subject of options & adaptations had come up on Kristine Katherine Rusch’s blog, “kriswrites”. The post is http://kriswrites.com/2017/03/15/business-musings-control-control-control/, and I’d be interested how you’d compare your experiences with hers, John.
As someone with long history in the writing business, Rusch has seen a lot of offers come, then evaporate for the most frustrating reasons. Apparently the most bullheaded barriers can be from the *agents* of the people that are supposed to help you–either yours or the production’s! Besides those times when agents of hers let good offers go, there was one case where a movie was going to happen and both the studio & actor was willing, but the actor’s agent refused to let that person do it!
It’s taught her the lesson that’s in the title of the post, you need to have “Control, control, control”. Rusch says it’s one of the many reasons she’s abandoned traditional publishers and agents, and go independent on her own. It seems to be doing well for her, including adaptations in the works.
You seem to prefer to work through agents. I take it you are comfortable with how that goes, even with ups and downs?
Old Man’s War would definitely make an awesome TV-series, imho. Well, all we can do is hope…
Question for you. Is the book’s publisher entitled to a portion of any money that might roll in from TV/movie options, especially if an actual series or film comes out of it.
I can see how a publisher might not care so much about the initial fee (“chump change”), but down the road, there could be huge earnings.
What about contact lenses? Can you help with that?
Seriously, wish you the best on this.
Pedro, this is a layman’s explanation from reading too many author blogs, but…
It’s a question of rights and who owns/retains them. If the author signs over the film/television rights to the publisher, then the publisher gets the money from selling those rights to the studios, with the author getting whatever cut of those rights stipulated in the contract between the publisher and the author (which may be “no money”, if the author signs a particularly bad contract).
It’s like asking how much Tor is going to get from the audiobook sales of TCE. I suspect the answer is “no money” because John sold the audiobook rights to Amazon/Audible, not to Tor.
As I said, this is a second-hand analysis at best. But John’s talked here a lot about different rights (print vs. TV/film vs. foreign, etc.), and how he employees different agents to negotiate the sale of those rights.
Ctein, Much obliged.
Can I be an extra in Old man’s war? You know, one of the old farts that go in a room and come out green 😎 I can act old.
I’m excited about the possibilities, but trepidatious also. After what happened to FlashForward, I’m not as anxious to see favorite novels adapted for the screen.
Then again, it’s been about a decade since I read Old Man’s War, so maybe I wouldn’t notice the changes. I rarely re-read books (the exceptions are Howards End, The Door into Summer, and The Day They H-Bombed Los Angeles).
I just hope they do you justice.