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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

From the Mailbag

The mailroom at the Rouge Wave has received some really interesting questions of late. And to Sticky in Sweden - I prefer Mrs. Butterfield's and no, I never put berry-flavored syrup on my pancakes. But I digress. The Wave-inatrix knows lots of stuff and has lots of experience, yes, even with the question below, but for this one, I turned to the expertise of my colleague, friend and mentor, Jeff Lyons for the answer.*


Dear Wave-inatrix:

My author friend asked me to adapt a novel he has the rights to. He is someone I trust completely but would be foolish to not at least check with someone in the business on the typical compensation percentages as he thinks we should have something in writing, which I agree with.

He told me that a screenwriter adapting a novel gets 10% of every dollar that comes in, but he wants me to have 20%. Does that math sound right to you? Of course all this is contingent on lightning striking and something actually happening with this screenplay. I'd just like to have my bases covered if it does. Thanks,

-Cautious in Colorado

Dear Cautious,
You are right to be cautious. It gets messy. It all depends on what your relationship is to the project. Are you being hired and attached as the writer? And you will follow the project as the writer thru the dog-and-pony show from company to company, etc? Or are you just being hired by another writer to do a one-off work-for-hire job, i.e., ghostwriting?

If the latter, then your deal is only with the person hiring you. Adaptations can follow guild rules for such. WAG rates are anywhere from 20k to 60K depending if there is a treatment, etc. If you are not following WGA compensation rules then a freelance job like this is usually paid in steps: 1/3 on start, 1/3 on delivery of draft, final 1/3 on deliver of 1 polish. Total compensation depends on their budget. I’d go with WGA rules, but I’d charge at least 10k. The percentage stuff of every dollar is nonsense. What dollars? Backend dollars? There are never back end dollars. That’s why everybody gets paid up front. And do you really want to wait two or three years to get paid, because that’s how long it’ll take to get this thing to market, if it is sold tomorrow. So... Just settle on a flat rate and step the payments out based on delivery of pieces. You should have something in writing, always. There are tons of books out there that have sample writer step agreements you can use as a template.

If you are being hired as the sole writer (i.e., not as a ghostwriter) and writing this on spec and are not getting any money up front, then your deal will have to be with a production company or the owner of the property. They will set what the compensation rates will be and any profit participations. You will not be getting any on-going percentages of any dollars, so let that one go. You will have to wait until the project gets made and distributed before any money changes hands and, again, this will all depend on whether you go with WGA minimums or some other formula. This is usually a step deal again with something saying upon sale of property you get so-much money and then participate in someone else’s share of the profits, usually the person who hired you. The production company will tell you to go fly a kite if you ask for a piece of their pie.

*Jeff is not an entertainment attorney, these are his thoughts from his experience, which is pretty formidable. If you would like, Cautious, you may solicit the advice of an entertainment attorney to discuss this further. I have someone I recommend.

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Anonymous said...


My advice to this fellow.

Never adapt someone's work unless you're being paid at least $20,000.00 or more for a simple first draft.

It's one of the hardest thing to do, adapting someone's work.

There is insanity in adaptation.

Don't do it unless you see big money being wired to your bank account.

The pros in Hollywood get over $400,000.00 to adapt a decent novel.

Don't go insane poor. Go insane rich.


Kirkwood said...

Ummmmm....I'm not sure where you got your numbers from, but let me assure you that "the pros" in Hollywood (as opposed to pro screenwriters in NY or elsewhere--must be an inflation thing) don't get "over $400K to adapt a decent novel."

Payments for such things are situational. If you're John August or somebody equally known, odds are pretty good your getting something more then league minimum, if your name is "Who-the-fuck-is-that-guy?" chances are you're getting only the league minimum, but are damn lucky to be getting that (thank you WGA). and if it's an independent film project (working on the WGA minimum budget agreement) odds are you'll be getting less. A lot less. And if it's a project outside the scope of the WGA, odds are pretty good there are no minimums and you'll be damn lucky to be getting paid at all (which is why up front is always a good idea).

If your "friend" wants you to write the adapted script, odds are pretty good he doesn't have a deal in place with a production company, which means this is strictly a spec situation, also know as a wing and a prayer or zero dollars until sold. If you accept your "friend's" deal then he's going to be the one paying you. And if so, it also means there are no such things as a "minimum" payment to expect from him (since he's footing the bill for you to write the script), you're going to get what you get. You might get some money for writing (a very low amount since this is a spec deal) and negotiate a percentage of his sale price should this thing ever get sold.

But numbers that other posters have indicated? Not a chance.

Everything is situational

JPS said...

The other issue is whether your adaptation will be accepted as the working script, once rights have been secured by a producer or studio--which is highly unlikely, I'm sorry to say (unless, of course, you're a top adaptor/screenwriter, and a name to be reckoned with). From your description, this is all happening backwards. Unless the adaptor is also the producer of the picture (and thus is responsible for lining up financing and talent), this project is basically nowhere.

Typically, when a novel is in the galley stage, months away from hitting the shelves or being reviewed, studios and producers routinely request copies based on publishers' catalogue copy or, better, word-of-mouth. Rarely, if ever, would a script move ahead without the rights being secured, whether by outright purchase or option.

Once that's done, the buyer would then assign the project to a writer. The bigger the novelist, the higher the concept, the more seasoned the adaptor.

So keep in mind that unless you set up some sort of payment agreement with your friend, there's nothing in this for you at the moment.