A Former Hollywood Reporter Shares How to REALLY Land a Movie Deal by Anne Taylor

A Former Hollywood Reporter Shares How to REALLY Land a Movie Deal by Anne Taylor

I’m writing today to add to Angela’s advice about scams offering to sell film rights for writers.

In my career as a journalist, writing for newspapers and magazines about the film industry (I even wrote for the Hollywood Reporter), I came across this information repeatedly.

Film studio executives, independent producers and directors and even actors, refuse to accept scripts, treatments, or novels “over the transom”. That means materials sent to them directly. They only open communications from recognized agents who send them books, proposals, and scripts from writers they represent. This applies to publishers as well.

It has been explained several times in writers’ journals and magazines, that there’s a reason for their returning any and all material that comes to them direct. They don’t even slit the envelope, or open the email. The reason is the number of writers who have claimed that their work has been stolen, and used in the making of a movie. Some have even sued studios in attempts to gain compensation.

When this happened in the past, the studios would fork out a few hundred dollars to make the nuisance go away, and not waste their time. But, with the dawn of the Internet, it became a bigger nuisance, especially when the ‘writers’ went public, making (usually false) accusations via lawyers and media stories. Now, everyone in the business knows that talent is not discovered this way. No-one opens these packages, nor replies to the emails, even if these come directly from publishers. A kind secretary might respond with “Find yourself a real agent!” if you’re lucky.

Yes, reputable, well-known literary agents want to discover a great script or a great book. It’s how they make their money after all, and they often have specialist departments for movie rights. Producers trust agents and aren’t likely to buy scripts or manuscripts from publishing services firms that are selling those services to authors.

Self-published books are seldom so good that they make an impression on an agent. However, if a book or treatment has potential, an agent might provide advice about improving it (usually: “Get it edited”), in the hope that it will eventually be good enough to offer to a producer or publisher. Everyone makes the point that Fifty Shades of Grey was first self-published and made three films. It’s an outlier and as rare as hen’s teeth.

The best route to becoming a published novelist goes like this:

  1. Take your first draft, and attend a very good creative writing course. The best are at universities or run by well-known successful writers (eg Patterson, Faber & Faber), not obscure unknowns. The mentors will impart a lot of knowledge and advice about publishing in the process of teaching you how to make your book a potential seller.
  2. Do the research into real agencies that handle your kind of book, and deal with film and TV rights — again listen to the professionals.
  3. Work on the book until it is the best you can do, then submit it to beta readers (refer to the teachers and fellow students), listen to their opinions, and rewrite again.
  4. Submit to several agents or agencies, listen to their opinions if they are offered, and take the advice.

At some point, late in this process, you may be advised to seek the services of an experienced (professional) editor. Apart from tuition fees and professional readers’ fees, this is the only time you pay out. [Admission: I am one.]

If you are lucky, as well as a good writer, you may find several traditional publishers bidding for your book, or even for the movie rights. Good luck.

If you do self-publish, don’t pay that publisher to try to land a movie deal for you. It’s not going to happen. You can self-publish while you continue to land an agent. See: Self publishing can actually INCREASE your chances of landing a traditional contract

If there is interest, don’t expect to become a millionaire from a film any time soon. If your agent raises some interest you may get an offer to option the film rights. This means someone will hold the book while they discover if it will be worth making into a movie. They will perhaps get a script writer to do some work on it. They must then raise funds to make it, and negotiate the services of a director and actors. This takes time and means you cannot offer it to anyone else during the option period. Such an offer will be for one year and may be for as little as one dollar, though usually it is more and you are always paid for it. [There has to be an exchange, money for the option, for a contract to be valid.]

This option will either fall away at the end of the year or be renewed. A Hollywood writer reported to a script writers’ conference that early in his career he had successfully lived in Los Angeles for several years on option renewal fees alone, with several scripts on option, and fees rising annually. Because, he said, the average time lapse between submitting a script and seeing it on the screen is seven years! And, this from a successful script writer.

Too many would-be writers want to start at the top — producing the best novel of the year, and selling the movie rights right away. Hen’s teeth again. Start with a short story and local film school students. They often seek material to turn into movies of lengths from ten minutes to an hour. Adapting another writer’s work for students (with permission) is a good way to learn the nuts and bolts of writing with movies in mind. Movies require more dialogue and less scene-setting than the original novel.

And, it can work the other way around. A script-writer friend completed a script just as the fashion changed and no-one wanted it. So, he turned it into a novel. When the movie fashion changes again, the script is ready.

Have I been too discouraging? There are markets where you can start a writing career with movies as the eventual target. Radio drama and radio documentary are two of these, and good places to try your writer’s wings. Learn the requirements.

Find the radio stations, and discover those who use this kind of material. Ask what they want, and make suggestions. But first, listen to their products. Tailor your writing to their requirements. Find something new for them, or a fresh angle. Television is a medium that devours written material but you need to present it in the format that it uses, which you can learn. And, start local.

Read. Read everything – good novels, good reporting, good biographies, good magazines and online newsfeeds. The latter provide endless ideas, look at Pro Publica and BBC online.

All of this experience will make you a better writer, of course, and more likely to find an agent and a traditional publisher.

And if you decide to self-publish your book, you are more likely to sell it in worthwhile numbers if you are well prepared–ask Angela.

If you take away anything from this article, it needs to be this:

  1. For traditionally published books, don’t pay anyone that represents you. They do it for the commission they earn by selling rights, whether to publishers or producers.
  1. Do NOT pay a publishing services company (or anyone for that matter) to try to land a movie deal for you. That’s not how the industry really works. Only established agents with movie rights experience can do it.

Writer, editor, publicist, designer, Anne Taylor has worked in a variety of media and fields including travel, theatre, film and fashion. A member of the Professional Editors Guild, she now edits other writers, adding polish to fiction and non, and still finds the film industry fascinating.


Angela is not only the publisher of WritersWeekly.com. She is President & CEO of BookLocker.com,
a self-publishing services company that has been in business since 1998. Ask her anything.