It’s a great story — recently re-issued in paperback, by the way. For Movie Week, I wanted to ask David about the Hollywood angle.
Tell me what’s happening with your story “The Wedding Album.” When/how was it optioned? Has a full screenplay been written? Is it heading toward production? And most importantly, what insights have you gained into the Hollywood Universe as your story continues along a path to the silver screen?
I wasn’t actively trying to sell an original screenplay or treatment to Hollywood. Film developers approached me about one of my published stories, and they found me by scouting the literary reviews. My novella, “The Wedding Album,” had just been mentioned in a review in the New York Times Book Review, and I started receiving unsolicited emails asking about the film rights. But even with pre-existing buyer interest, it still took about a year for my Hollywood representatives to strike an option deal with Focus Features, a subsidiary of Universal Pictures, and another eight months of negotiations to iron out the contract. And what a contract it is–35 pages long and covering every conceivable eventuality from sound-track albums to film-inspired calendars and action figures.
Film studios, I have learned, prefer to use the Disney model of rights acquisition. That is, to own everything for all time. Part of the back and forth in our contract negotiations was about how much of my novella I would still own the film rights to. There are particular characters in “TWA” that appear in other stories of mine, as well as words that I coined. I was able to save most of my characters names, but I had to give up several terms. The one I regretted losing the most was “free-range people.” This refers to persons who were NOT cloned or excessively augmented with genetic improvements. I can continue to use the term in my prose stories, but if I ever sell more film rights, “free-rangers” is already spoken for.
So, a year to strike the deal, eight months to negotiate it, and I signed the stack of papers in November 2007, just days before Hollywood writers walked off the job in a three-month union action. Focus Features purchased an option for 18 months, but the clock didn’t start ticking until the strike was over. I believe I was one of the few people in Alaska who woke up each morning looking for news about the Hollywood writer’s strike. Anyway, my option runs until August 2009.
Have you explained to your readers what an option is? It just means that the studio has purchased the exclusive right to buy the film rights to your work if they want to within a certain period of time. Now I know that there are many ways to structure a movie deal, but the purpose of the option period is to let the studio or development company see how many of the pieces of the film they can put together–script, director, talent, money–before actually spending the $100,000 to $500,000 to purchase the film (adaptation) rights. If they succeed in getting enough commitments, they may green light the project. The way I hear it, less than one percent of all options are ever exercised, and those that are may have to languish through several option extensions before everything is in place. In my case, my reps worked with an independent development company who hired a screenwriter, who pitched his treatment to Focus. As far as I know, we’re still at the screenplay stage, trying to come up with something the studio likes, with only six months of the option term left.
In my deal, once I signed the contract, I relinquished all control over my story. I have always heard about authors bemoaning how Hollywood ruined their stories, and my attitude has always been that as long as the money is good, I don’t care what they do to my story. The development company didn’t ask me for any input and had no plans to share the screenplay with me, but I asked my reps if I could see it anyway. Although I am not interested in writing screenplays, I have the unique perspective of watching one of my successful literary stories go through the process of being adapted from prose to screen, and I thought I could learn something by it. This was probably a mistake. When I read the screenplay and saw what they did to my story, I could only shake my head in wonder. My story, as it turns out, was merely the springboard for someone else’s completely different story, and my story did not survive the exercise. Oh, well, I’d been warned.