How to Make your Novel into a Movie (by Claudia Moscovici)

Memoirs of a Geisha


I don’t know of many authors who wouldn’t want to make their novels into a movie. There are probably three main reasons why writers would love to see their fiction turned into film: a) vanity,  b) money (a novel usually sells better if it gains more visibility as a movie) and c) the most important reason, I believe, is the fact that cinema is the most comprehensive art, which includes several branches of the arts. Great films have the narrative quality of fiction; the visual appeal of photography; a top-notch music score; a good script and quality, character-based acting that, ideally, competes with theater.  If you want it all, as a fiction writer, you somehow have to find a way of collaborating with an accomplished movie director. I’d like to describe below some of the options of collaboration available between fiction writers and movie directors.

Memoirs of a Geisha movie

1)  Sell movie rights to your novel to a top-notch film studio

The baseball player Lefty Gomez is famously quoted as saying “I’d rather be lucky than good”. If you’re a fiction writer or a movie director, however, you definitely need to be both lucky and good to succeed. If you’re good without being lucky you won’t go far in life, unfortunately. If you’re lucky but mediocre, your star will fade quickly, as any fad does. The most successful novels that have been made into mainstream movies, I believe, usually had a winning combination of good fortune and quality writing. If you succeed in publishing your novel with a good publisher–a rather challenging process which I already described in my earlier article “How the Publishing Process Works in the U.S.” (see  link below)–and if that publishing house decides to invest most of its annual promotion budget into your novel, then you have a decent chance of selling movie rights to your book.

Because each step I alluded to is very difficult, however, very few novels sell movie rights and even fewer are actually made into successful movies. One of the best examples of a novel that overcame all these hurdles is Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. Published with Alfred A. Knopf in 1997, this masterfully narrated historical novel about a geisha working in Kyoto, Japan around WWII  became a bestseller internationally. The book sold over 4 million copies and was translated into 21 languages. Columbia Pictures bought the film rights. The movie by the same name, directed by Rob Marshall and produced by Steven Spielberg, debuted in December 2005, staring the beautiful and talented Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi.  Well-acted and with spectacular, painterly scenes, the movie cost $85 million dollars to produce but, being a box office hit, made double that much in profits (over $162 million dollars).

Although there was some controversy related to the movie—a former geisha who offered Golden some background information sued him and his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf—overall, this novel is a rare and huge success story which, unfortunately, few writers can boast of. If your novel doesn’t sell tens of millions of copies worldwide and doesn’t get movie rights with a major Hollywood studio–yet you still want to see your novel made into a movie–then what do you do? Your best option is to try to find an appropriate independent film director on your own. If you choose to pursue this avenue, however, you have to exercise caution. Independent movies can be the incredibly powerful and artistic. They’re often more dramatic and character-driven than mainstream cinema. Unfortunately, the field of independent cinema is also a breeding ground for scam artists and frauds.

2)   Collaborating with an independent film director

There’s no shortage of talented independent film directors out there. The challenge consists of finding the right one for your fiction and especially getting the budget necessary to make your film. I’ll have to say upfront that I caution writers against collaborating with film directors that charge the author and/or actors to fund their film. Not only do you risk losing your life savings in this manner, but also your film, even if it is produced, will probably not have a decent distribution network. Likewise, be aware of the sad reality that not all film producers will be honest or upfront about charging authors money. The most dangerous, I believe, are those that string you along and mislead you by either a) asking for incremental “reasonable” sums of money for the project that eventually add up to a huge amount or b) getting you emotionally and creatively invested in the project first, then demanding money later (a classic bait and switch technique of conartists). I think if you’re an author who has large discretionary funds at your disposal, then it’s fine to pay a movie director to make your novel into a movie: as long as both sides are honest and open about what they expect and will get from each other. But I suspect that few authors have large discretionary funds at their disposal, which would be necessary, since making movies is a costly process. If you’re not independently wealthy, as most writers aren’t, then what do you do? This is what I’ll explore next.

Although creative compatibilities between the writer and the film director are most important, without sufficient funding they can’t make a movie. I have not discussed the issue of funding when addressing the rare case of bestselling fiction being made into a blockbuster movie because in such a situation lack of money is obviously not an issue. Insufficient funding is, however, one of the main hurdles in the business of independent film. Generally speaking, there’s an excess of talented writers, independent movie producers and actors and a relative scarcity of funds for them.  Fortunately, there are some funding options available to independent film producers. 

Cristian Mungiu

a)   Public art grants

Public art funding is especially common in Europe. I’ll use Romanian film directors as an example, not only because new Romanian cinema has gained international renown during the last decade, but also because  it relies primarily upon public art grants. The National Center for Cinematography (Centrul National al Cinematografiei) and the European Media Program give annual awards to talented Romanian directors. These grants are competitive (many more directors apply than are awarded grants) and the funding is usually far more modest than the budget of mainstream Hollywood cinema. An independent film usually gets about one million Euros, sometimes less, while Hollywood movies require tens of millions of dollars.

4 months 3 weeks and 2 days by Cristian Mungiu

Even with more modest funding, however, Romanian directors have produced award-winning films that are incredibly dramatic and character-driven. Earlier I reviewed on this blog several such movies, directed by Cristian Mungiu, Vali Hotea and Bogdan George Apetri. Their grants were often supplemented by Western European film grants.  In addition, universities often award film grants, as do cultural centers and institutes, such as ICR (the Romanian Cultural Institute). It is a great privilege for a fiction writer to collaborate with an independent film producer that has the capacity, talent and connections to receive such film grants and to make the most of them by producing great movies. In the best-case scenario, the talents of each complement and enhance the other and the final result is even better than the sum of the parts (fiction and film). 

Outbound (Periferic) directed by Bogdan George Apetri

But even this option is relatively rare, particularly in the United States. Art grants for independent films are far more common in Europe than in the U.S. So what are some viable options for American writers and film directors?

Sundance Film Festival

b)   Private non-profit funding for independent films, such as the Sundance Film grants and crowd funding, such as Kickstarter

Sundance Film Grants

In the U.S., public funding for independent films–aside from the modest grants awarded by universities mostly to their students—is meager and rare. There are, however, some private grant sources worth mentioning. The most notable among them are the Sundance Film grants offered by the Sundance Institute. The renowned actor and film director Robert Redford founded this non-profit organization in 1981. In 1985 the institute took over the United States Film Festival. Its Feature Film Program supports new independent screenwriters and directors (or “Lab Fellows”). The winners of these grants get to shoot their films under the tutelage of established film directors and cinematographers. The Sundance Institute also has similar grants for documentary films and film music.  Through its combination of funding, studio experience and guidance from seasoned professionals, the Sundance programs offer a wonderful opportunity to talented new film directors. Many independent movies make the film festival circuit in the U.S. and Europe, the most prestigious of which are the Cannes and Sundance film festivals.

Kickstarter crowd funding

Kickstarter crowd funding

Another avenue for funding, particularly in the U.S. where, as mentioned, public funds are relatively few, is crowd funding. Kickstarter has become a popular source of funding for independent films. As the article below states, its films won 12 awards at the Sundance Film Festival 2012:

Launched in 2009 by Perry Chen, Yancey Strickler and Charles Adler, Kickstarter is a collective yet private way of investing money in film projects that people believe will make a profit. Film directors present a project and stipulate a deadline for raising the funds. If they can’t raise the funds by that date, then they don’t collect any of the pledged donations. The donations are made via Amazon payments and the platform is international (anyone in the world can propose projects and pledge donations). Kickstarter takes 5 percent of the profits made. The main downsides of Kickstarter are lack of enforcement and minimal quality control. The projects are selected based on their stipulated ability to make a profit, not necessarily based on their artistic quality. Also, there’s no way, as of yet, to enforce that those who propose certain projects will deliver them or that they’ll meet the standards of the individuals who funded them.

Follow your dreams but stay grounded in reality

For fiction writers and film directors alike, huge mainstream success is usually not something that comes automatically, if at all. Success in general depends on maximizing options, making good choices and being adaptable to change. No author can bank on having their novel become an international bestseller. Similarly, no independent movie director can count on having their movie become a blockbuster and win prestigious awards. The odds of both are equivalent to winning the lottery. To go back to my modified quote by Lefty Gomez, you have to be both lucky and good to succeed, particularly on such a grand scale. Fortunately, in many respects, both writers and movie directors make their luck—or at least maximize their chances for success–by exploring the best and most realistic options for a fruitful collaboration that turns fiction into film. 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon


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Filed under Ana Ularu Outbound, Cannes, Cannes Film Festival, cinema, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Cristian Mungiu, Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days: A Portrait of the Communist Era, film funds, film review 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, film review Outbound, films, How the Publishing Process Works in the United States: A Writer's Perspective, How to Publish in the U.S., Kickstarter crowd funding, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, new fiction, new movie, Periferic Bogdan George Apetri, publishing, publishing industry, Romanian film, Romanian Film Festival, Saga Film, Sundance film grants, The Seducer, The Seducer by Claudia Moscovici, The Seducer: A Novel, Tolstoy, Velvet Totalitarianism

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