The Mysteries of Hollywood, Part 2 - Film Option Renewed

Previously, I wrote a blog entry about having my novel, The Other Typist optioned by Fox Searchlight Pictures and Keira Knightley

I made a lot of jokes about how, as a writer, you get all excited, you sign the contract, and then… wait around… and wait around some more.   

The moving parts that go into green-lighting a film project are many.  A screenwriter is needed.  A director is needed.  The studio needs to sign actors they believe will get folks to the box office.  (Relevant aside: Actors have lives, too.  Someone integral to the project might, I dunno, get married and have a baby.  Or go make a mega-blockbuster action film that interferes, or... any number of things can come up.)

I'm no expert on any of that, and all I know is that most novelists don’t really have much to do with the development process.  You get the occasional thoughtful check-in courtesy call, but in my experience, that’s about it.  In the meanwhile, people will offer all kinds of advice and ask you all kinds of questions – questions to which you don’t have the answer.  These questions and comments may include things like: “Hey, can I be in the movie?” or, “When does it come out?  Will it be playing in my town?” or, “Hey, my mom thinks {fill-in-Hollywood-actress’s name here} would make a really good Odalie.” 

I can’t really answer or respond to most of those questions and remarks, because to tell the truth, I spend my days hiding in my little hole, writing my next novel, and I have no idea what they are doing out there in Hollywood. 

But I will say, I just got an email tonight with the news that they’re renewing the film option thru May 2017.  So that was a nice little check-in.

Will there be a film version of the The Other Typist in the near future?  Who knows!  If there’s one thing I can say for Hollywood, it’s that they certainly know their way around suspense. 


And now, back I go to do some more writing in my little Hobbit hole…

Literary Scouts: The Secret Agents of the Publishing World

While attending AWP this weekend, the subject of literary scouts came up a few times, and the main conclusion I drew from these discussions is that very few writers – even established writers, who’ve written several novels – know what a literary scout is, or what a literary scout does. 

Literary scouts are very influential in publishing, and if your main profession is writing, you should probably know a bit about what they do.  There have been several pieces written on this in recent years, so what I think I’ll do here is give you my take on what scouts do first, and then conclude with a roundup of some of these other articles. 

What You Should Know About Scouts

- The first thing that springs to my mind when I hear the words “literary scout” is “insanely busy person.”  Scouts work crazy hours.  They probably attend more parties and spend more time reading manuscripts than anyone else in publishing.  I’ll loop back around to explain why this is so in a minute. 

- They are tastemakers.  Scouts are generally on retainer to publishers, foreign publishers, and movie studios.  They are tasked with discovering the hottest new manuscripts (most typically, a manuscript that has been contracted for publication here in the US but hasn't been published yet) before anyone else does.  Publishers will often buy a title on a scout’s recommendation.  They can also pass on a manuscript based on a scout’s recommendation.  These aren't agents; they don't represent a list of writers as clients.  They probably don't ever meet a whole lot of writers.  I suppose the best way to describe it is to say they are professional recommenders.  

- Scouts have secret and effective ways of getting a manuscript before anyone else.  Example: I happened to be working at a literary agency when my own agent (Emily Forland of Brandt & Hochman) sold The Other Typist to Amy Einhorn at Putnam/Penguin.  We hadn’t announced the deal yet, and Amy planned to keep the manuscript under wraps until we’d had a chance to edit.  Meanwhile, a scout came to pay a visit to my literary agent boss.  “Suzanne just sold her book,” my boss said when the scout came over.  “Oh, I know,” he replied.  “I’ve already read it.”  I asked him how that was possible.  “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,” he joked.  Or, at least, I think it was a joke… 

- This brings me back around to where I left off in my first bullet point.  Literary scouts attend more parties than anyone else because they rely on a network of trusted insiders to pass along manuscripts to them.  And they read more than anyone else because it’s their job to know about EVERY MANUSCRIPT OUT THERE, ALL THE TIME. 

- I imagine this last bit – being held responsible to know about every manuscript out there, all the time – must be stressful.  The young folks I’ve known who have gone to work for scouts have all burned out on it within a handful of years.  The people who have gone on to found their own agencies are very tough, hard-working, take-no-prisoners types. 

And finally, there are a few conferences where scouts are particularly active: the London Book Fair (taking place this week, BTW), Book Expo America (usually late May/early June), and the Frankfurt Book Fair (October).  Lots of foreign deals are made during these conferences, and the buzz panels at BEA are very instrumental in bringing publishers’ lead titles to the attention of distributors and booksellers.  For those writers who have no clue how their book gets bought by a foreign publisher and how that works, I think I’ll write a more detailed post on this topic soon.  In the meantime, below is a list of online pieces written about the tiny but influential world of literary scouts.  As a writer, you probably won’t ever meet any of the small number of literary scouts that exist (unless you live in NYC and habitually hang out at industry parties) but it’s an education to know what they do and understand scouts’ influence as tastemakers.  They are certainly an unusual and fascinating part of the publishing puzzle.  The secretive manner in which they are able to get their hands on the latest manuscripts is particularly intriguing.  As it turns out, the publishing world is quite leaky – for the right people, that is, and these people are scouts. 

Other sources: 

Inside the Secret World of Literary Scouts  

Twist and Scout 

Searching for the Next Big Thing: Life as a Literary Scout 

A list of current scouts and the foreign publishers/TV/Film groups they represent can be found here

When Your Novel Goes to Hollywood

This one could also be titled “When Your Novel Runs Away to Hollywood Without You.”  Because, generally speaking, I don’t think most people realize how little a novelist has to do with what happens after she sells the film rights to her book.  "Do this-or-that!" your friends and family will tell you.  "Have so-and-so direct, have so-and-so star," perfect strangers will offer, apropos of nothing.  Great, I think, but while I would like to know more about filmmaking, I am not a filmmaker.  I am a nerdy, bookish, shut-in novelist, period.  There are exceptions to this rule, of course.  Gillian Flynn is a great example of one such exception; a former TV writer, Flynn sold the rights to Gone Girl but remained part of the project, writing the screenplay.  In my experience, and in my opinion, Flynn is a rare animal, in that she is a novelist who also seems to know her way around Hollywood. 

I, by contrast, know squat.  So when there was film interest in my book, I happily took a backseat and let my two agents advise me.  That’s the first thing I learned: in New York, we have these folks called literary agents.  They take aspiring writers’ manuscripts and sell them to publishers.  In L.A., they call that a “book agent.”  A “literary agent,” according to them, is someone who sells your book to a studio or production company.  My literary agent (in Hollywood’s parlance) is a very cheerful and energetic woman who works for Creative Artists Agency in L.A.  I saw her once or twice out here in New York, and visited her once at CAA in L.A. – in an intimidatingly large, echoing office complex where I sat in a waiting room across from Jeremy Renner and stared at my shoes as I waited for an assistant to come down and bring me upstairs. 

Mostly, though, the whole process went like this: My CAA agent asked a lot of questions (“Do you have any casting ideas?  Favorite directors?  Favorite screenwriters?  Specific demands about rights or credit?  Preferences over this-or-that?").  I’m not sure I came up with smart-sounding answers, but nonetheless, once we chatted she was off and running.  I got the impression that this is the novelist’s role: Come to the table with ideas and energy, but also know when to get out of the way. 

I also learned that things in Hollywood have to reach a sort of critical mass to sell.  It’s like a math – or, really, chemistry – equation.  This director plus that production company.  That actor plus this studio.  In my case, Fox Searchlight acquired the option on my book as a vehicle for Keira Knightley, who is attached and will be given executive producer credit.  Once we agreed to the deal, they were very careful about when and how they announced it, so there was a period during which I wasn’t supposed to post my news anywhere (argh! so tough!).  I’m still not sure why this was so (legalities? generating buzz? I don’t know), but I complied. 

Now… what I’ve sold is the option to make a film, using my book as source material.  Will they absolutely, 100% make that movie?  Hopefully, but it’s not set in stone.  Tons of books get optioned only to sit idle on the shelf, so it’s one of those situations wherein it’s good to have hope, but not expectations.  Once a book has been optioned, your book must once again achieve another state of critical mass: studio plus producer plus actors plus screenwriter plus director.  Director – that last one is key.  And according to the executives who I spoke to at Fox Searchlight, they like to foster auteur directors, and build the picture around that; the director is the deciding factor for them. 

I’ve been told there’s a screenwriter, and a script in progress, so that’s very encouraging.  And when one of the Searchlight execs came to town, she met with me, and we had a good talk.  She was full of ideas and energy, and was very enthusiastic. 

Legally and financially speaking… for those writers who don’t know how it works: When a film studio options your book, they pay a flat fee to buy a period of time (usually between 12-18 months) during which they can exercise the option to develop your book into a film.  If the film moves forward, they then pay you the “purchase price” – generally a set percentage of the overall project film budget.  They also usually have an option to renew this option for a set price.  “Development hell” or “development limbo” is the nickname given to that period of time after the book (or screenplay, concept, idea, etc) has been optioned but before it has gone into production. 

Will The Other Typist reach that state of critical mass I mention?  It would be difficult to say for sure.  Lev Grossman, author of the NYT bestselling The Magicians trilogy, blogs brilliantly about the highs and lows of having his book’s pilot passed over during pilot season.  But don’t despair!  Grossman’s book-turned-TV-series is alive and well and getting picked up by SyFy, so there’s a happy ending to that story. 

Am I happy that a company like Fox Searchlight optioned The Other Typist?  Hell yeah!  Searchlight, if you haven’t noticed, has been doing wonderful, award-winning, admirable films, and seems to be in the midst of a golden-age renaissance… just thinking about the last decade or so, from Juno to Slumdog Millionaire to Black Swan to Beasts of the Southern Wild to 12 Years a Slave… these are all movies I’ve loved and feel like were made with integrity and passion.  Am I glad Keira Knightley read the book and got involved?  Also, hell yeah.  She has a track record of making smart, meticulous-yet-adventurous choices when it comes to picking projects, and I am very honored by her involvement. 

For now, I think I will end this blog post on this happy, hopeful note.  I wait, on the sidelines, to see what will happen.  And in the meantime, I spend my time throwing myself into the world of my second novel.