I recently served as a speaker on a panel discussion organized by the Book Publicists of Southern California under the irrepressible founder and Chairman emeritus Irwin Zucker on the subject of “Books to Movies.”
Beside me, there were two other panelists, Ron Bernstein, a savvy and powerful senior agent at ICM and Barbara Schiffman, a much admired and experienced script consultant. I was chosen, I suppose, because I had either sold or optioned a dozen of my books to Hollywood producers and studios.
There were about 150 people in the audience. Most, because of proximity, had some knowledge of the film and entertainment business. Many, as I later learned, had self-published memoirs and books on various subjects as well as fiction. Some had books published by traditional publishers.
All were anxious to know how their offering could be adapted to a movie, which for them, was the gold standard of literary achievement, the holy grail of their efforts. I am talking primarily about big screen movies, those shown in popcorn palaces, touted by big ads and endless promos, the movies that make people famous.
Bernstein, who is on the daily firing line of selling books to the flicks, opined that many movies today were designed for a very young demographic and were made to sell ancillaries like toys and video games. There were, he noted, adult movies being made but fewer than in the past. He did acknowledge that many movies headed straight to cable television or DVDs and streaming sites.
Schiffman, an acknowledged expert on the technique of film stories was what one might characterize as a strict constructionist. She knew how stories could best be told on film, but admitted that it was impossible to predict marketability in advance in a constantly changing environment.
In my talk, I recounted the difficulties, complications and disappointments of getting a book adapted to a movie and the long odds that followed an option or even an outright sale of finally getting the book to the silver screen. I attributed my own experience to pure luck since I have never written a book with a movie in mind and my talk centered around my “war” stories of dealing with the clashing opinions and egos of the Hollywood creative and business community.
I cited the nightmare of the so-called collegial experience, of having to confront not only producers, directors, actors, their spouses or significant others, all of whom had their own views about how the movie should proceed. For a novelist, used to being king of his mind-made mountain, the process is terrifying.
One can easily understand why Ernest Hemingway said something to the effect that the best way for an author to handle Hollywood was to stand at the Nevada border, throw the book over the fence to California, have them throw the money back, then run like hell.
What astonished me in the question period at the event and the aftermath, was that many of these self-published authors were absolutely certain that their books were big movie material.
Some were convinced that the public needed their take on this or that cause, and that their book “deserved” a movie. People lined up to flack their books on such subjects as life in New Caledonia, Autism, social justice and other areas designed to “inspire” movie goers and help save the world. It was futile to cite movies as mere entertainment.
A number of people flashed their self-published book covers, which featured entertainers long gone written by middle to old age offspring convinced that the world was waiting for their filmed resurrection.
Some bold people thrust manuscripts at Bernstein who very politely and with great tact, refused them. I made the mistake of dismissing one eager questioner with “But who would come to your movie?” which he took as an insult.
If there was a takeaway from this experience it was that there is a giant groundswell of traditionally published and self-published wannabe recognized writers out there who really believe that their work deserves not only to be read and lauded, but adapted to big Hollywood films. They fantasize that they have created works that demand attention in this media. Indeed, many have been bolstered by relatives and close friends out of genuine love or ingratiation and lavish encouragement that their work is a surefire movie.
In that room I saw first hand what it meant to these people to believe absolutely in their work, most of which probably passed through countless rejections before ending up as a self-published book. These were, indeed, true believers. They were not to be dissuaded.
That said, I continue to admire their pluck and self-confidence. It is really, really hard to write a book. Whether it be fiction or non-fiction the investment in time is enormous. If not self-confidence and commitment, what can sustain a determined writer to spend long hours alone spurred on by the absolute belief that their work is worth doing despite rejection after rejection?
Suddenly digitization and the e-book phenomenon has opened the doors wide to their creative efforts and the old stigma of vanity publishing has disappeared, giving them confidence that they could compete with writers and publishers everywhere on the planet.
One can forgive them for being convinced that their effort is well worth the candle. They have to embrace the idea that after such a massive effort it surely is a psychic thrill for them to hold a book in their hands with their name emblazoned on the cover, or see their work in digital form on a reading device. They must believe that they have not only enriched themselves but the world at large, and yearn for others to lionize and praise them.
In a society where people without achievement or portfolio are publicized as public heroes and given dubious celebrity status, surely a long form book writer deserves some sort of honors, at the very least, for his or her heroic effort to create a book.
In a profound way, seeing their work adapted to the silver screen in an auditorium filled with rapt attentive people concentrating on their ideas, characters and conception can offer the thrill of a lifetime. I’ve experienced it and know its power.
Fortunately, the future for the committed writer who believes that his or her work demands a visual moving picture component is not all that bleak. A sister technology to the digitization that made his or her self-published work possible is also available to adapt the work to moving images. It may not offer the Hollywood treatment, complete with massive advertising and distribution treatment, but it is quite possible to create a respectable product available through various outlets on the Net in a similar way as a self-published book.
The process is bound to get easier and cheaper as it matures, and I predict many will avail themselves of the opportunity as time goes on and more and more Net producers and writers seize the opportunity, producing documentaries or fiction stories on their own. There are also rumbles that the future of the standalone theater auditorium is doomed as more and more people shift to the technologically enhanced and economical home experience.
Marketing and distribution opportunities may be severely limited but there is, as it is with a book, a great psychic satisfaction for a creator to see his or her work adapted to a “film.” Granted its audience will be severely limited as it competes for recognition in a vast sea of other productions, but it may, however long the odds, offer a way into the more lucrative world of the big movie.
Of one thing I am certain. Technology has unleashed ever-expanding opportunities for the creative mind. It is surging and unstoppable.