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Turning a Novel into a Screenplay
by Laura Brennan
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What kind of contract do I need to write a screenplay of someone's novel?
In essence, this is an option agreement. You're optioning her story to turn it into a feature. You want to protect your right to write the screenplay, your right to shop the screenplay to production companies, and your right to a credit should it be made into a movie.
But, strangely enough, while you must have a contract between you and the novelist, you don't actually need the screenplay -- that is, if you're more interested in selling the project than in writing the screenplay. In other words, if what you want is to get a project off the ground (and get a credit of some sort), then you can just shop the book to producers by pitching it, without having written the screenplay.
You'll need to work hard on the pitch, because a novel is usually much too sprawling to be a movie as is. Your pitch, therefore, will be about the essence of the novel, and what it would look like pared down to movie-size.
The upside of this is that it's a lot less work on spec for you -- you get to see if there's a market before you spend six months to a year honing the screenplay. The downside is, you probably wouldn't get to write the screenplay at all. If you sell the project (or, technically, if a production company options it from you), they probably would be reluctant to give you the screenplay to write unless you have credits. It's not impossible (Nicholas Meyer started his career by refusing to sell the rights to his popular Sherlock Holmes novel, The Seven Percent Solution, unless he was allowed to write the screenplay), but it's hard. However, since you control the rights, they'd have to buy you out with a credit of some sort, probably producer or assistant producer. So that's something to consider if you're looking for a foot in the door.
If either you absolutely want a screenplay credit or the novel is "soft" -- long on character development, short on plot -- then, yes, you probably want to write the screenplay first.
This is a very long answer to your question, but you should figure out what you want before you sign the contract, so they're good points to ponder. There are several books that have boilerplate contracts in them, but I don't know which ones have exactly what you're looking for, so I suggest browsing through them first at a bookstore or library. Your best bet is Contracts for the Film and Television Industry by Mark Litwak. Two books that aren't on my shelf but probably should be are Television and Screen Writing: From Concept to Contract by Richard A. Blum and The Writer Got Screwed (But Didn't Have To): A Guide to the Legal and Business Practices of Writing for the Entertainment Industry by Brooke A. Wharton.
Of course, an entertainment lawyer would have boilerplates of everything, and with all contracts I highly recommend that you consult a lawyer before signing anything. You can expect it to cost you between $250 and $500 for a lawyer to draw up the agreement. Most options are "free" options, where you pay the novelist one dollar up front, with a guarantee of a certain amount of money should the project be sold. Option agreements typically run for six months to a year, with an optional renewal for another six months to a year. You'd want to negotiate to control the rights for as long as possible if you have to write the screenplay before shopping it around.
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Laura Brennan has written for a number of television shows, including The Invisible Man for the Sci-Fi Channel. She also co-created the children's series, Queen Augusta's Heroes.