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James Carroll: Roadblocks to book-to-screen adaptations


Even the biggest financiers like to promise ‘when we come aboard a film project, everyone knows it is going to be made’ – which simply isn’t the case. There’s a sign (or at least there was a sign) on the revolving doors at the entrance to BBC Broadcasting House that reads ‘Warning: doors may stop suddenly and revolve in opposite direction’.

That pretty much sums up development, commissioning and financing conversations where things can change in an instant, offers can be withdrawn, material can be let go, and projects can stall. It’s an agent’s job to keep things on track as much as possible, and change strategy when necessary. Here’s a far from comprehensive list of some common roadblocks to getting books onto the screen:

1) Clear creative vision

Adaptations are ways of telling stories and without a clear creative vision it will be nigh on impossible to bring a team together to take the book to the screen, let alone entice an audience to watch. Aside from the key creatives, it’s crucial to ensure other stakeholders in the productions (channels, distributors, financiers, marketing teams and so on) have bought in fully to the idea of the project happening in a certain way. Without this, problematic clashes and unassailable hurdles can become the norm, rather than constructive debates about how to best bring the creative vision to life for a wide audience.

2) Legal difficulties and chain of title

Most non-fiction books or those inspired by true events are subjected to a legal read by the publishers who will receive advice on the risks of publishing and any changes that might need to be made to the text to avoid copyright infringement, libel and defamation. This is helpful for producers but a film or television series is a different beast and may face other legal difficulties, for example those involved in the visual portrayal of real people. It’s also really important for non-fiction authors and their agents to maintain chain of title. This means the cache of documents that proves they have permission to include everything in the book (this will likely take the form of release forms, quitclaims and any other permissions agreements and contracts). Without this, production cannot proceed.

3) Changes of creatives and timing

Sometimes the producer who has optioned the book on behalf of a production company changes companies or even careers, without handing over to a new producer to work on the adaptation. The same can happen with commissioners, financiers, actors, directors and pretty much any other key personnel involved in the project. This is why speed is your friend. There can be a short window when everyone’s schedules align, everyone is on the same page, and production can move forward.

4) Unavailability of talent or failure to attract a writer

Often the hardest part of any project is finding a screenwriter or an actor who is available and valued by your financier or network, as well as being the right creative fit for the project. Talented creatives can be booked up years in advance, which can make for a long wait if a producer is working their way down a shortlist of choices.

5) Poor scripts and lack of commitment

If a channel has commissioned a taster tape, a pilot or development materials (for example, a show bible laying out the world of the returning TV series) before committing to giving the project a ‘greenlight’, the quality of those materials once delivered to the channel will inevitably have an impact on whether the project can move forward. Best case scenario, it’s an instant hit. Worst case scenario, the pilot script is so bad it causes the stakeholders to back out. Middling scenario, constructive notes will be given and the project will move forward with a tweaked concept.

6) Financing falls through and production cost spirals

Financiers and distributors can change priorities and pull promised funding from potential projects, leaving little time for producers to find cash elsewhere. Keeping an eye on production costs is also key, working with screenwriters who are aware of the cost implications of the project and can work with producers to find workarounds to any expensive plot points, locations or action.

7) Clashing release schedules

The worst kind of purgatory (there may be those who disagree) is when everything has been shot but the project can’t be released because it would be up against a similar film or television series – or, when the project is released anyway to compete and loses out. Avoiding this is a combination of having a unique idea, doing it better than anyone else, and smart release schedules and marketing to help it cut through to the public.

On a more positive note, television based on books has on average 1 million more viewers more episode in the UK. Check out this article by Damien Timmer on why it’s still worth investing time in the sometimes gut-wrenching process.

Check out our latest news for details of Northbank’s recent book to screen deals.

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