Sunday, March 02, 2008

How Novelists Can Avoid Getting the Shaft with a Movie Deal..Well, OK. How They Can Try

People keep asking me about the writers' strike. That's because I live in LA and wrote a never-produced screenplay. Wowee! Such Qualifications!

So, I couldn't add much that wasn't in all the papers in every city in the nation during the strike. But here's a story that you may not have heard and, yes, I think it will inform many of you, just in case you should ever get lucky enough (we know we're talented enough, right?) to get an offer from a studio to make our book into a movie.

In Column One of the LA Times on Wednesday, Feb. 13, Times Staff Writer Josh Getlin reported on Deborah Gregory's experience. She's the novelist who came out of nowhere to write the Cheetah Girl novels. Disney saw the potential and now—with Disney's powerhouse promotion behind it—her characters are in films, CDs, toys. You name it.

Here's the thing. Aside from the option fees and payment for her title as co-producer of the movies—reportedly at $125,000—she hasn't seen any royalties. The real lesson here isn't that she was given the shaft. The real reason is she was given the shaft because she didn't negotiate properly. And you need to know what she did wrong so you won't do it when your luck is riding high. Here's the dope:

 Studios write contracts so that royalties are paid on net profits.
 Studios know how to cook books so that movies never really make a net profit.
 Even a good agent can't get better contracts from studios because the studios know a) authors are desperate and b) the studios are willing to walk away from a deal that they don't like.

So, what I can tell from this sad little story is that the only things an author can do if he or she is approached by a studio are:

 Don't get too starry eyed. Reality is not likely to be what you think it will be.
 Try to get as much as you can in the upfront money because you will probably never see any tail-end money.
 You can try to negotiate royalties based on gross profits rather than net profits. (Don't plan on that, though--remember, the studios are willing to walk away.)
 Oh, yeah. Get an agent and/or a manager. Preferably one with lots of experience and a background in law.

Now, in case you think that this couldn't happen to you, Getlin reports in a related story that ran the same day (p. A22) that there are many, many authors out there with similar stories. They include Olivia Goldsmith who wrote The First Wives Club; Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump: Alice Walker who wrote The Color Purple: and Art Buchwald who wrote Coming to America.

Need I remind anyone that Buchwald wasn't a little emerging writer when this happened to him. The movie based on his book grossed $350 million but the studios claimed they didn't make enough money to pay net profits. Buchwald won an undisclosed settlement but, alas, the decision will not apply to your case if you should ever be so lucky (or unlucky) to have to fight for your due. It's a small legality but a big one for those who came after him.
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Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author THIS IS THE PLACE; HARKENING: A COLLECTION OF STORIES REMEMBERED; TRACINGS, a chapbook of poetry; and two how to books, THE FRUGAL BOOK PROMOTER: HOW TO DO WHAT YOUR PUBLISHER WON'T; and THE FRUGAL EDITOR: PUT YOUR BEST BOOK FORWARD TO AVOID HUMILIATION AND ENSURE SUCCESS.
Her other blogs include TheNewBookReview.blogspot.com and AuthorsCoalition.blogspot.com, a blog that helps writers and publishers turn a ho-hum book fair booth into a sizzler.

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