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A Primer on TV & Film Adaptation for Writers (Where the Rules Change Often)
November 2, 2022 by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman 7 Comments
Hollywood is an odd place and ever-changing. If your literary agent or publisher wants to pitch your book to producers, managers or networks, they need to know the rules—or at least, the rules of the day.
But don’t get too stuck on them, because … you guessed it … they’ll change. Often.
Back in the day, an agent or publisher could pitch your book over the phone or mail a copy off for consideration. Now, the execs prefer a little more detail and insight before considering your story for an adaptation.
The million-dollar question: What does Hollywood want in a story?
Truth is, sometimes they don’t even know until they hear it. It’s a gut check of something that’s not only marketable, but also gives them tingles when they read the logline.
The elements of a great pitch package
Unless your rep has a personal relationship with a Hollywood executive, they’ll need a formal pitch package, which includes a logline, short synopsis, treatment, and possibly a pitch deck.
By no means is this list a rigid formula. As noted above, the rules change constantly, and each executive and company have different preferences. I know many who decide just on the logline alone.
Unlike the literary world, submission requirements are not always listed on the company’s site. One size definitely does not fit all, but if you have the following materials, your team will be ready for any question thrown at them.
This is the most important part of your pitch and the hardest to write. A compelling logline alone will make or break your chances. Oftentimes, an exec will read the two-to-three sentence logline and decide from there, regardless of the pitch package you’ve spent countless hours creating. I know. A lot of work for potentially no gain, so spend the time to create a standout logline.
A synopsis tests the concept’s strength, so don’t just use the blurb on the back of the book. Boil it down for them, without getting into the weeds. Keep it high level, showing complex characters, lots of potential for conflict, and a strong ending.
These used to be more commonplace for both selling a feature screenplay or a book for adaptation. A treatment is just a lengthy synopsis of the book, usually 5 to 25 pages long, depending on the complexities of the story and the type of adaptation you’re pitching (feature film, TV series, limited series). Basically, it’s a well-written outline of the book. Even though they are not always needed, it’s helpful to have one in your back pocket.
The goal is always to get them to read the book, but don’t expect a high-level exec to read it. They won’t. They’ll pass it onto an assistant or someone in their coverage department to read and give them the bottom-line notes—pass or recommend.
Rather than craft a video to pitch an adaptation, it’s common to use a pitch deck (slideshow). Canva is a fantastic resource, full of free images and tools. The purpose of the pitch deck is simply to make it easier for the execs to get a feel for the tone of the book. These execs are visual people and pictures grab them. A slide deck can do the job of a video pitch for a lot less money, time, and aggravation.
Do you need the screenplay written in advance?
Yes and no.
Unless the author understands screenwriting, they shouldn’t write the script, especially when pitching a TV series. A pilot script (the screenplay for the very first episode) requires deep understanding of screenwriting, as you’re building the entire world, introducing characters, plus telling a compelling story in just 60 pages. That requires great understanding of the craft.
But … yes, you can write the script, even if it’s not great.
I know that seems counterintuitive, but developing a story costs a lot of money. If the execs have even a bad script for a great book, pre-approved by the author, the cost savings are astronomical. They already know what the author is willing to cut without a battle. Then, they simply hire a professional screenwriter to finish the job. In the ideal world, it’s not about control. It’s about a great story being told in a different medium that the author loves, too. If the author hates the adaptation, they’re less likely to promote it to their fan base—a fan base Hollywood is counting on to purchase movie tickets.
So, if you have a solid screenplay, it can greatly improve your odds of selling the rights. Plus, you then get at least a “Written by” credit, which means more money. That’s one of the reasons my company helps the novelist craft a solid script for submission to executives. (See the Book Pipeline Adaptation Contest.) Writers learning how to crossover into other mediums—whether it’s poetry, short stories, novels or scripts—only makes them more valuable as an artist. It never hurts to have as many tools in your toolbox as possible.
If your book isn’t a best seller or overflowing with glowing reviews, don’t panic. Of course it’s definitely worth mentioning if you have a robust amount of positive reviews. Strong book sales would definitely help, too. But if the producer doesn’t like the concept, they won’t care how many reviews or sales it has.
Like many industries, Hollywood is built on connections. You often hear, “It’s who you know.” While every author needs assistance connecting with a decision maker, be wary of any small press claiming they can help pitch the books they publish via a “sister” arm of their business. This possibly comes with a fee. Some of these operations require lots of book reviews, an angle to get the authors to encourage friends to buy and review the book that they themselves published and profit from. So take a deep research dive into anything that feels off to you. Trust your gut. There are a lot of scams out there.
Selling a story to Hollywood is much harder than getting a book published. After all, it costs millions of dollars to produce a TV show or feature film. But it only takes one “yes.” Do your research, surround yourself with a great team, find people who understand the industry and craft who have a track record and solid reputation, and you’ll dramatically increase your odds of success.
great post, question Ms/Mrs Bowerman, is Nollywood/the Various Woods in India/The European cinemas's have the same rules. Something tells me they don't, but do you know?
if any who read this is interested, I have a screenplay free to read online, please tell me what you think at my blog below