Have you ever dreamed of selling the film rights to something you wrote? Would you like to learn a surefire way to achieve this? That’s what I’m here to share with you today.
OK, let’s be realistic. If you’re skeptical of this claim you should be, because when it comes to publishing we’ve all heard an agent or other author say something like, “Be prepared to work really hard, submit widely. and face a lot of rejection along the way. Getting a book deal with a traditional publisher isn’t easy, and getting a movie deal is practically impossible. “
I still believe this is generally good advice. But sometimes, very occasionally the stars align unexpectedly. The story of how my first novel, “My hands are red,“ was published and how I continued to sell the film rights to Wayfarer Studio is one of those crazy, weird and wonderful coincidence stories, and this is what I am here to share with you today.
Do not mistake yourself. I did work really hard on this book, so let’s start there.
“My hands are red” is the story of a group of teenagers who travel to Indonesia on a short-term missionary trip, only to find themselves caught up in a civil war and stranded in a mountainous jungle. Their struggle to return home threatens their lives and reshapes their view of the world. I started writing this story when I was 18 and finally completed a full project 11 years later. That’s when things got weird.
I didn’t have an agent, so I picked three publishing houses that I might be interested in and sent them unsolicited queries. Two of them were interested, and within two months I had sold the book.
After a year of editing (during which I developed a constant appreciation and respect for talented editors), the novel was published. Then he was nominated for a major reward and – through a series of extremely unlikely events – its publication led me to the man who would become my husband.
A decade later, I sold the rights to the film.
How I met the person who would buy the film rights
In the year the novel was published, I was living in Los Angeles. After years of sharing accommodation, I had just moved into my own apartment and, for lack of furniture and money, I bought a used TV stand on Craigslist.
Unbeknownst to me, the person selling this TV stand was an actor by the name of Justin Baldoni whose career was just starting to take off.
When I arrived at his place, he was as amiable as he was attractive. He was nice, he asked me questions about myself and he showed a real interest in the novel I had just published.
I had a box of books in the back of my car that had not yet arrived in my apartment. Before we went our separate ways that day, I had bought his TV cabinet and he had bought a copy of my book.
Shortly after, Justin made contact. He had read it. He loved her. He wanted to buy the rights to the film.
Why the publishing house first said no
When the novel was published, I signed a fairly standard contract. Under this contract, it was the publishing company, not me, that retained control of all film or television rights.
As such, it was the publishing house that had the right to make a decision, and when Justin and I reached out to them with Justin’s request to acquire the rights, they said no.
The company that published my novel was well known for publishing Christian content. Justin followed the Bahá’í Faith. Although the publishing house did not fully explain their reasoning, I knew it was a risk to their reputation to sell the film rights to one of their popular novels to someone with a religious background. different.
I had no power in the situation and barely knew Justin, so I was slightly disappointed with the result, but moved on.
Ten years after…
Ten years later, I was married to a career aid worker and lived in Vanuatu on a small island in the South Pacific. Justin was still in Los Angeles, getting better and better as an actor, director and producer. He was busy wrapping up filming for the hit series “Jane The Virgin” and directing the “Five Feet Apart” movies. and “Clouds.“
We’ve been on Facebook since Justin’s initial interest in my book, and one day I left a comment on one of his posts on an upcoming project.. He responded and let me know that he still wanted to buy the rights to my book.
“Of course,” I say. “Let’s see if we can do it.”
I still didn’t know Justin well, but I had had many glimpses of his life and thoughts via social media over the past decade. From what I could see, Justin was a questioner and deep thinker who had a genuine passion for sharing stories that helped people grapple with important ideas related to purpose and meaning.
I originally wrote “My hands are gone red” to explore how unexpected trauma forces us to deeply question our ideas about God and people, good and evil, faith and meaning. Justin, I thought, seemed well equipped to serve the heart of this story.
How I regained the rights to my novel
When I approached the publishing house again about the sale of the film rights, they initially seemed more open. Justin and I met via video conference with the management team and they signaled their willingness to collaborate. Less than a week later, however, they contacted me and let me know that they had reconsidered.
It could have been the end of the story. The publishing company was within its legal rights to refuse to release the rights to the film for much less convincing reasons that “the degree of polarization evident in the American political and religious landscape means that a creative collaboration between religious traditions is very. likely to alienate a large part. of our customer base. However, it was do not the end of the story.
In a gesture that is both graceful and unexpected, the publishing house offered to give me back all the rights to the novel and to get out of the image so that I can make my own decision in the matter.
After the publishing house returned all the rights to me, I reissued the novel with a new cover and sold the rights to the film to Justin Baldoni’s film production company, Wayfarer Entertainment, for $ 1.
“Wait,” you might be thinking. “You went to all this trouble for practically give rights away?
Not so fast. There were two main drivers behind this decision.
First, this book has never been about money for me. In fact, when it was published, I gave all my royalties to charities working on human rights issues in Indonesia. (It is do not to say that writers shouldn’t worry about money. On the contrary, you must be strategic about how you pay for writing if you want to make a living from it, and there to have been other writing projects I undertook where trade really mattered, but not this one.) For this reason, and because I trusted what I knew about Justin, selling the rights to the film was not also never represented what I could earn as an option.
Second, however, selling the film rights for $ 1 was a strategic choice. Each time these rights are renewed beyond the initial 2-year period, I earn more than this initial amount. The contract is fair and up to industry standards for anything I’ll earn from the project if and when the movie actually gets shot, and I took that business aspect seriously. I hired an entertainment lawyer to review the contract and advise me, and had constructive discussions with the Wayfarer team before the contract was finally signed.
The short answer to this question is: “I don’t know.”
The last time I spoke with the Wayfarer team they seemed excited. They had identified a screenwriter and everything seemed to be picking up steam. They told me that they are committed to bringing this story to life in a way that is relevant to today.
However, that was during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic (so there are around 4.5 lives). I’m not sure exactly where Justin’s passions and creative interests take him during this time of exceptional upheaval, challenge and heartache. If they continue to lead him to a movie based on my novel, that will be wonderful and fun. Otherwise, I’m sure whatever Is immersing his energies will be worth it, and I will enjoy watching him.
How to Sell the Film Rights to Your First Novel in Just 21 Years
Many articles on this site have a great “how-to” list near the end of the post. I thought long and hard about the list of tips I could extract from this strange story and here is what I found … a sure-fire recipe for selling the film rights to your first novel in just 21 years:
- Spend 11 years writing your book.
- Submit your unsolicited manuscript directly to three editors only.
- Sign a contract with the first publisher you interviewed.
- Be nominated for a major award the year the book is released.
- Buy a piece of random furniture on Craigslist from an up-and-coming actor who both has a genuine interest in other people who are not famous remotely AND who eventually wants to produce / direct their own movies.
- Tell them “no” the first time they try to buy the rights to your novel.
- Become the friend of this actor on Facebook.
- Wait ten years.
- THEN sell them the film rights to your book for $ 1 when they show interest again.
Seriously, if there’s one piece of advice I want to offer on the back of this weird story, it’s this one: Spend at least some of your time creating the art that your heart keeps pulling you towards. Do it for yourself – because you feel you can and you should. Because it is your responsibility and your privilege, your gift and your gift. Do this, accepting that you cannot fully predict or control where it may lead.
So all the best, my creative colleagues, with your own work. May at least part of this work be close to your heart, and may it lead you to interesting and wonderful places.
photo by Jakob owens on Unsplash