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Looking for a Story for Your Next Film? Why Not Consider a Novel By a Black Author?

Looking for a Story for Your Next Film? Why Not Consider a Novel By a Black Author?

As we continue to have conversations about black filmmakers taking creative risks, broadening the pool from which they draw their stories, as well as the genres they choose to work/play in, I thought I’d throw this into that pot as well…

It may not be an option that many of you have ever given any thought to, for one reason or another, but if you’re struggling to come up with ideas for stories to script, I’d strongly suggest looking to the deep well of literary work by black authors, begging to be adapted for the screen!

There are a wealth of untapped stories of all kinds and all genres there – more than your imagination could probably even fathom. And it may come as a surprise to you that these novels, and their authors, are far more accessible than you might actually realize.

I’ve gone through the process of optioning a novel, and was surprised at how relatively simple and even cheap the process is. Initially, I thought the authors I approached wouldn’t be interested at all, since I’m not exactly a known filmmaker or producer; and also, I imagined that the option fees they’d charge me would be too rich for my pockets.

Neither turned out to be the case. Every single one of them was interested, in most cases, putting me in touch with their publicists, managers, publishers, or other representation, to crunch the details.

And each proposal was affordable – to me anyway. I’m obviously not giving names and exact figures away, because I don’t think I can or should. But, suffice it to say that I’m definitely not some rich Hollywood producer. Neither am I a rich indie producer.

In short, while I have savings accumulated over the years, I’m far from wealthy. 

And I’ll just say, in my experience, given all the authors I contacted, option fees ranged from $500 to $5,000, and higher (depending on how *hot* the author is, and how in-demand their novels are), for a 1 to 2 year option period. Obviously there are those whose fees are markedly higher, far beyond that range; but, as I noted, it really depends on how popular or in-demand the author’s work is. Although only a handful can claim to be New York Times bestsellers for example.

In one case, I was offered a 1 year option for $1500, or an 18-month option for $2,500. And, by the way, these are exclusive options, meaning, I own the adaptation rights for the time period I paid for, exclusively. So if I went with the $2,500 1-year option, I’d have one year to package my film, finance it, and be ready to go into production. Although deals vary from one author to the next. So what I’m mentioning here isn’t some standard rule. And from what I discovered, some are very willing to work with you on fees, because they’d love to see their novels in some other format – specifically film – which can do wonders for sales, I’m told, especially if the film travels widely. Obviously not all of them are interested. There are certainly those who prefer that their novels exist as novels only. But in my experience, the vast majority of authors I approached were interested.

So terms can be negotiated; like I said, it really depends on the author and their representation. You might get lucky and find an author who’s willing to give you film rights for a lengthy period, at a really low option fee that you can afford. At least make the effort and inquire. You may be surprised – pleasantly so.

There’s a lot more to optioning novels; I’m just given you a crash course, if I can even call it that. To reiterate, there’s really no steadfast rule, with terms and deals varying from author to author. But you’ll never know until you actually contact them. And in this age of Twitter and Facebook (I was able to find almost every author I contacted, via one of those 2 social networking sites), it’s much easier to find these folks, and reach out to them.

But my overall point here is just to remind you that there is this other untapped source where you can get your stories or even inspiration from – a really rich, diverse source of strong, in some cases already cinematic material, that’s been virtually ignored by Hollywood, even though, on an almost daily basis, there’s an announcement made that a novel has been optioned by a Hollywood studio, producer, or production company, with the vast majority of them being by white authors, centering on white characters. 

And I think that it’s in part because there isn’t much interest in adapting novels by black authors about black people, that you’ll find some black authors who want that kind of recognition, a lot more accessible than you might think. It’s a sorry state of affairs that brings all this about, but this is where we are folks.

So consider a novel adaptation. You just might make an author’s day, week, month, year, or even career! Obviously, optioning one is just the first step; there’s still a lot of work that’ll need to be done before the book becomes a film, with raising money often the wall that many run into. But choose your novels carefully, considering the story and how cheap or expensive it’ll be to adapt to film.

Just take that first step, and see where it goes… that’s all I’m encouraging you to do.

And if you’re a filmmaker whose gone through the optioning process, feel free to share your story; like I said, I’m sure each situation is different, some easier, cheaper, or more expensive and difficult than others, etc.

Good luck!

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