Hoping For a Movie Deal, Part One

Let’s just start with this assumption: if you’ve written a novel or memoir, chances are you’ve dreamed of it becoming a movie. Admit it! It’s so visual, you think. So dramatic! It’s even better than [insert name of box office hit].

Hey, I agree with you! Plenty of books could make great movies, if only someone were interested in making a movie out of them.

So today and tomorrow I’m going to shed a little light on film rights. Keep in mind that different agents have different ways of handling things, and there is no clear path to Hollywood, but these are some basics.

Hollywood Film Agent Required

Literary agents can’t typically sell in Hollywood. (We sell to publishers.) So the only way to get our movie rights optioned or sold is to partner with a film agent. Large literary agencies have film departments whose full-time job is creating and maintaining relationships with Hollywood agencies, and trying to get film agents interested in their authors’ books. But most writers aren’t repped by these larger agencies; that means your agent, in addition to all the work of selling books to publishers, is simultaneously trying to pitch books to film agents.

You must have a film agent on board to get your book considered in Hollywood. The only other path to the movies is if you have a personal connection with a producer, actor, or director who has the power to get a movie made and is also interested in your book.

How does it work?

Your literary agent shops your manuscript to film agents exactly the same way we shop it to publishers. We have our list of contacts. We email them pitches for the books we think are saleable in Hollywood. We talk on the phone; sometimes we have meetings when we’re in L.A. Just like when you send your queries out to literary agents, these film agents can choose to respond or not. If it catches their attention and looks interesting to them, they may enter into a dialogue about it. If not, they’ll just quickly say “no” or they won’t respond.

If we DO get a film agent on board, it’s a great first step but still doesn’t mean much. Now the film agent has to shop your manuscript amongst film producers, directors, and actors, trying to get someone interested. Maybe something will come of it, maybe not.

What are the odds?

I’m not sure of percentages, but obviously, thousands of books are published by the major houses each year, and only a tiny fraction are ever optioned for film. (Less than 1%, I’d guess.) Of properties that are optioned, still less than 1% of those go on to be made into films. Of those that DO end up as movies, it typically takes a long time. Five to ten years would be considered normal.

What’s an option?

An option gives a production company the exclusive right to begin developing your manuscript into a film. They may have a writer start working on the screenplay; they may begin trying to attach other elements like directors and actors. Or they may sit on it and do nothing.

An option is always for a limited time, usually 12 to 18 months. Normally nothing happens in that short period of time, so options are usually renewed, sometimes again and again and again, or else the production company loses interest and drops the option. Sometimes your best bet of making some extra money on your book is to get it optioned with repeated renewals; you may never see it made into a movie but you’ll at least get a check each time the option is renewed. (Please don’t ask “how much.” The numbers vary widely, usually from about $1000 and up, for a one-year option.)

I’ll continue this topic in PART TWO tomorrow…

Meanwhile, leave your questions if you have them!

© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Roger & Karen Hannah on October 27, 2013 at 12:37 PM

    Looking forward to what you have to say tomorrow. We are very interested.

  2. Tara Morgan on January 29, 2013 at 2:46 AM

    This is great help to me. I’m a young Author and I’ve always dreamed to at least try and get some sort of film deal. I’m writing four books it is a serious and I’m almost complete my fourth and final series book. At the moment I’ve published my first book. ‘The World I Belong To’ and I need to know what I need to do to actually have a shot at this. Thank you so much!

  3. Dianne E. Butts on March 8, 2011 at 11:29 PM

    >I took a screenwritng class in Hollywood last summer and some "smaller" producers are actively looking for something to produce. Two men came and spoke to our class. They were looking for something to produce, and finally, in an airport, one of them picked up a collections of stories by William Gay, and really like his story "I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down." They contacted the agent, who had dollar signs in his eyes. (More dollars than this small production company could pay.) So they went to the author and talked directly to him. He was willing to option the story for a small fee (less that what Rachelle quoted). The team made the movie, starring Hal Holbrook. So it can happen. My understanding is the author will get a percentage of any proceeds from the movie.

    Out of that same class, a producer since bought the option to a nonfiction book. She set about interviewing screenwriters and, since she knew me from the class, interviewed me. I'm currently writing a Treatment for it. Don't know if I'll get to write the screenplay. Time will tell.

    Dream big. It can happen–in a zillion different ways.

  4. katdish on March 8, 2011 at 8:34 PM

    >Thanks for the quick response to my question, Rachelle. As to the high quality stuff, should there be interest in Hollywood for the rights to a certain novel coming out later this year, I was thinking of Clint Eastwood–for lead role and director.

  5. Jean Ann Williams on March 8, 2011 at 7:37 PM

    >I wondered what "option" meant. Thanks, Rachelle.

  6. C. S. Lakin on March 8, 2011 at 6:27 PM

    >Question: If my unpublished novel gets optioned by a film agent for Tv or film development, does this in any way affect my being able to sell it as a novel in the meantime? Does my literary agent have to do anything in dealing with the film agent if a contract occurs just for the book sale? I have numerous projects now under consideration at places like lifetime and HBO and some of them are unpublished books, with my hopes that if something goes to film it may help sell the book. thanks for your answer in advance!

  7. Cliff Graham on March 8, 2011 at 6:16 PM

    >Shawn- The script is the first major hurdle. If it's an adaptation, it will cost the production company money to turn the novel into a script. Most films die right there in "development hell."

    Kristin- Yes they will occasionally do that. They'll see it pop up on the publishing announcement websites (like Publishers Lunch) and look for agent contact info. They rarely if ever go right to the author.

  8. Lori Benton on March 8, 2011 at 6:12 PM

    >Thanks Rachelle. This is a topic I haven't seen covered too much and I learned a few things. It seems like it would be harder to get a movie green-lighted than a book contracted.

  9. shawn underwood on March 8, 2011 at 6:08 PM

    >Hi Rachelle,
    i can't believe your readers haven't considered their book/books for the big screen! I'm all about the movies so this post is really perfect timing. Now of course I just have to find an agent.
    One funny thing happened to me in the hairdresser's though—my hairdresser chatted up another client and told her I was an author and bla bla bla and the next thing I know, this women said, 'do you have your book with you? I'd like to show it to my partner.' Of course i had no copies of my book because i was driving a rental car and some copies were in my own car—in the shop. Anyway, the hairdresser had my book and gave it to her. She in turn gave it to her partner—famous actor who owns production company with her. HOW WEIRD IS THAT? And no I don't kow the outcome yet.
    Finally, here is my question. Is it better to have a screenplay rather than your book to submit to big deal Hollywood agent?
    Shawn author of 'Mommy are we French yet?'

  10. Rachelle on March 8, 2011 at 6:01 PM

    >Hollywood is buying the same things they've always bought. Some hig quality stuff, some trash, a lot of in-between.

  11. katdish on March 8, 2011 at 5:59 PM

    >So, what IS Hollywood buying these days?

  12. Cliff Graham on March 8, 2011 at 5:28 PM

    >Love the blog Rachelle, thanks for the post.

    I fall under the category that Neil asked about above. My novels were found by filmmakers before they ever found a traditional publisher. I had no connections to anyone. Now they are being made into 3D movies from the producer of Spider-man. It was, frankly, miraculous. I worked very hard, but a lot happened outside of my control.

  13. Kristin Laughtin on March 8, 2011 at 4:33 PM

    >If I'm correct, sometimes film agents will contact the literary agent first, yes? (This would be in the case where a director or producer has happened to read the book and loved it, for example.) I'm sure the chances of this happening are even rarer, but it does happen on occasion, right?

  14. Kristin Laughtin on March 8, 2011 at 4:33 PM

    >If I'm correct, sometimes film agents will contact the literary agent first, yes? (This would be in the case where a director or producer has happened to read the book and loved it, for example.) I'm sure the chances of this happening are even rarer, but it does happen on occasion, right?

  15. phyllis sweetwater on March 8, 2011 at 2:27 PM

    >As I right I invision my book as a movie. It really helps with realistic dialoug and setting descriptions. I want the reader to see what I see. I find actors who would play the roles well. I compile a soundtrack and include it in the afterward. The movie is already made in my mind. So who should I call?

  16. Jeigh on March 8, 2011 at 12:47 PM

    >This is great stuff. I had no idea about film agents. Can't wait to hear the rest tomorrow. Thanks!

  17. Jane Wells on March 8, 2011 at 12:19 PM

    >Awesome! I _just_ asked this question concerning the author/publisher contract I'm about to sign on my non-fiction book. (I know a devotional is not really movie material, but I wanted to know anyway.)
    Friends who have read my fiction WIP, however, are already casting actors in their minds – and I must admit, it is so much fun to go there with them!

  18. Rachelle on March 8, 2011 at 12:17 PM

    >David A. Todd: Oops, you caught me. I changed my wording so it says "thousands of books." Thanks for the catch.

    Carol J. Garvin: Typically, once the movie rights are sold, the author loses all ability to influence the screenplay. Screenwriters can take as much liberty as they need to make it work in a film medium. As you know, some movies stay relatively close to the book, while others veer wildly. I have a client whose book was optioned by a production company. It's a Christian book but we knew they'd never make a Christian movie out of it (if it were to ever hit the screen) so we included a clause in the contract allowing the author's name to be removed from the project if it ended up to be something that goes against what she stands for as a Christian author and speaker.

  19. Ann Best on March 8, 2011 at 11:57 AM

    >I love the script format. I'm strong on dialogue and weak on descriptive passages. A few years back I tried to write a few screenplays. Studied Syd Field's book. Watched lots of movies! Found InkTip. It was fun. But the way to production is long and difficult, and fraught with numerous roadblocks such as the one L.C. Grant (above) pointed out. But writers are the most optimistic of people, I think, and so I for one will probably keep trying, especially since trying to write a screenplay helped me "see" how to write scenes–the scene is basic (and also plot points) for screenplays AND fiction.

    A very informative post. Thank you!

  20. Marcus Brotherton on March 8, 2011 at 11:56 AM

    >Very informative post, thanks.

  21. Carol J. Garvin on March 8, 2011 at 11:55 AM

    >The process is fascinating, but I honestly haven't thought about the possibility of my stories ending up on screen. I prefer reading books to watching movies so don't see a lot of them. I did go see MY SISTER'S KEEPER because of an interview with Jodi Picoult in which she mentioned the ending had been significantly changed in the movie. As Cosette has said, obviously book-length stories have to be adapted "to accomodate the art of visual story telling in a 2 hour time block", but how much liberty can scriptwriters take with a published story? Does it happen often that major changes are made? And does the author have any say in those changes?

  22. Tana Adams on March 8, 2011 at 11:29 AM

    >I usually dream big so a movie deal is right on par with my fantasies. Care to make it come true? 😉

  23. Kathryn Packer Roberts on March 8, 2011 at 11:06 AM

    >I've always been interested in what goes on behind the scenes when a book is made into a movie, how it all comes about. Thanks for the post. I don't hold my breath, but I do admit I dream about it. But like 'Choices' said, first we need to get our books published.

  24. Cossette on March 8, 2011 at 11:06 AM

    >I worked with film in college, and also tried adapting a book to radio and have a very deep appreciation for the difficulty of transfering a story from one medium to another. Purists will never like seeing a book on screen because to accomodate the art of visual story telling in a 2 hour time block there simply _are_ changes that must be made. Though, of course, adaptations must strive to stay true to the story-heart and soul-as much as possible. Looking forward to the answer to Juliette's question tomorrow!

  25. Choices on March 8, 2011 at 10:49 AM

    >Very interesting post. A Movie? Let's first start with my dream of getting my children's book published.

  26. Linda on March 8, 2011 at 10:37 AM

    >I'm sort of doing it backwards – I have a screenplay that is currently optioned by a production company in L.A. and now I'm shopping the novel version to literary agents! I don't know if the option will help me sell the book or not. I do mention it in my query letters. I guess that's all I can do.

  27. David A. Todd on March 8, 2011 at 10:37 AM

    >" obviously, tens of thousands of novels are published by the major houses each year"

    Is this true?

  28. Rick Barry on March 8, 2011 at 10:07 AM

    >Very enlightening. And even though I've had scads of people tell me, "Gunner's Run should be made into a movie!" the simple fact that I sold that novel to a publisher without an agent must mean the chance of making it to the silver screen is about 0%. Another reason to seek an agent next time. Living and learning…

  29. R. Chambers on March 8, 2011 at 9:56 AM

    >Thanks so much for this post. When my novel, The Chinaberry Album, came out I was told by the publisher that several of the major film studios had reqested the book. Until your post I never really understood the process. I was in Acres of Books in S.CA once and was told a film company had requested a copy of one of Paul Gallico's books. Never saw that one made into a movie either, but at least I was in good company.

  30. Jennifer Lane on March 8, 2011 at 9:42 AM

    >"It’s so visual, you think. So dramatic!"

    Ha ha, you took the words right out of my mouth! Thanks for the educational post.

  31. BellaVida on March 8, 2011 at 9:32 AM

    >Great article, can't wait for part II.

  32. Rachelle on March 8, 2011 at 9:00 AM

    >Neil Vogler and Juliette: Your questions are answered in tomorrow's post.

    Richard: I don't think I could come up with a "number of times per year" – it's on a project-by-project basis. But I think tomorrow's post will help answer this.

  33. Greg Johnson on March 8, 2011 at 8:46 AM

    >I'm sure Rachelle will respond to this, but we actually work with a veteran Hollywood co-agent on all of our major properties, both novels and real-life stories. It's a good reality check to listen to him talk about what Hollywood is actually buying. Further, we get about a dozen queries each year from production companies that we chase, as needed. Landing properties with viable production companies, as Rachelle explains, is rare.

  34. Richard Mabry on March 8, 2011 at 8:23 AM

    >I'll admit I've had dreams of one of my novels making it to the screen (be it movie or TV), but then again, I had dreams of pitching in the major leagues, and that didn't happen either.
    To bring it down to a more personal level, how many times a year do you or Greg try to shop a book to a film agent?
    Thanks for discussing this. It's fascinating.

  35. Darke Conteur on March 8, 2011 at 7:50 AM

    >Very interesting. I knew literary agents didn't do scripts (obviously), but I didn't think you went to bat to sell scripts to other agents. I thought that was a process I'd have to do myself.

  36. Juliette on March 8, 2011 at 6:53 AM

    >I have often thought I would want to stipulate that I have to write the script myself, possibly together with one or two others, but I have a feeling this is hopelessly unrealistic – am I right?!

  37. Katie Ganshert on March 8, 2011 at 6:38 AM

    >I honestly have not thought of my book as a movie. My friends have, though! I think it's because I write Christian fiction, and let's be honest, Hollywood's not looking in that direction.

  38. Timothy Fish on March 8, 2011 at 6:21 AM

    >Someone sent me an e-mail one time saying they were interested in making Searching For Mom into a movie. Unfortunately, that is all they said. They didn't tell me anything about themselves or anything, so I didn't respond.

  39. Neil Vogler on March 8, 2011 at 6:09 AM

    >A very illuminating post! Hollywood is picking only the very safest of bets at the moment – ie, those properties that have proven existing fanbases – and you only have to look at the slew of upcoming remakes, sequels and prequels to see that studios are not interested in (or are not currently able to be) tackling new and exciting ideas that push the envelope, simply because it seems audiences aren't showing up to see those kind of movies in significant enough numbers. I wonder if, in the short-to-midterm, this means we'll see less book adaptations… or more? Do popular books automatically equal a safer movie bet, given the already primed audience?

    Rachelle, we occasionally hear stories about first-time writers whose books aren't even out yet (or even finished, for that matter) selling the film rights to such-and-such's production company for massive amounts of money. I wondered how, in your opinion, that sort of situation comes about? Is it the writer or agent just being well-connected? Or are there another set of factors at work?

    Great blog, by the way.

  40. Rosemary Gemmell on March 8, 2011 at 4:15 AM

    >Thanks for covering this, Rachelle. It's one of those things I've wondered about occasionally, in the same way I try to imagine becoming a best-selling author!

  41. Loree Huebner on March 8, 2011 at 2:39 AM

    >Thanks for posting on this subject. I was curious on how a book goes from the shelf into the theater…and yes, I have dreamed this dream. And yes, had the imaginary interview with Oprah.

  42. Jodi Langston on March 8, 2011 at 1:12 AM

    >Loving the info. I already turned my 2 novels into scripts and hope to shop them this year. They all placed well in Writer's Digest contest last fall.
    It's hard to know which to concentrate on since I love both formats.

  43. L.C. Gant on March 8, 2011 at 12:57 AM

    >Great post! I find this subject fascinating. My coworker's son is a producer in Hollywood and is behind some pretty big name movies, and I think it's safe to say he would agree wholeheartedly with everything you've said.

    Hollywood can be a very fickle business. A few months ago, he finished shooting some romantic movie and just needed to reshoot a few scenes before the final edits took place. The whole project got scrapped because the actors had some kind of lovers' quarrel and didn't want to reshoot the scenes. Can you believe it?!

    If you ask me, best to treat movie adaptations like lottery tickets—fun to dream about, but highly unlikely to play out well in real life. Ah, well. 'Tis the nature of the beast, I guess.

  44. Stephanie McGee on March 8, 2011 at 12:48 AM

    >Really interesting post. Call me insane, but I really don't know how I feel on my stories becoming movies. I'm so overly-critical of adaptations that I'm not sure I could stomach it. Maybe if I just let the movie be and never watch it myself. Or pay attention at all to any actors cast in roles, who's directing, etc.

    I think part of me is afraid of getting a big head. There's this overwhelming fear that I won't be able to handle the success of a Stephenie Meyer or a J.K. Rowling. (I know it's a trite comparison.) I really do believe, at this stage in my career, that I would rather remain solidly mid-list with a devoted following that allows me to keep writing and doing what I love.

    Yes, I've daydreamed about a movie being made of my book. But that was only as a daydream of meeting someone. And that someone varied by mood. But in all that daydreaming, I still circled back to never seeing my books made into movies.

  45. Martinelli Gold on March 8, 2011 at 12:44 AM

    >Oh wow! I've never read about this process before! Looking forward to part 2!

  46. Joanne Bischof on March 8, 2011 at 12:04 AM

    >Very interesting. It's amazing how the behind the scene stuff works. As always, thanks for sharing, Rachelle!