The Order of Property Creation

We used to hear this all of the time “The book was so much better than the movie,” but we don’t hear that much anymore. The standard path forward from book to movie has been drastically altered. I became even more aware of this recently when listening to “On the Media” on my local NPR station.They ran a full show on movie novelization.

Hopefully they will do a follow up show discussing the animation of existing movie franchises. No, I’m not talking about something like Frozen.  I’m talking about movie franchises (usually in the science fiction realm) which migrate from expensive movies to cheaper animations. Well, I assume they are cheaper since there is more and more software out there to create animations with.

While I could not find a good link, there have been discussions over the recent years about making movies without any actors. I know I’ve listened to some show or other discussing this on NPR but just cannot find the link now.

The more infuriating link I can’t find, because I can’t remember the name is the one to an old movie about an artificial intelligence actress created by some producer. It had a one word title and some big name guy actor. No, I’m not thinking about Her.  This movie was in the late 80s early 90s. Had some big name male actor in it as well. Main stream movie that eventually made it to television. At the time it was a bizarre concept, but now there is actual talk about the era of movies without actors. This artificial character used to be green screened into “her” movie scenes. Nobody who “worked” with her actually met her or shared the same set. There was mounting pressure for the creator of this program to provide her for in-person interviews, not just these remote video conference interviews.

I must admit to remembering little else about that movie other than the premise of it is getting closer to reality. There was a story on the news not too many years back about one studio’s attempt to create a movie without any actors, voice or otherwise. There was talk about the threat to the livelihood of starving artists everywhere. The principal back then was to use digitized voices of actors long since passed. Build a database of words and sounds from these voices and via software generate the dialogue. My Web searches this morning could no longer find any mention of it.

Much of this conversation heated up when The Sims game started taking off. Debates raged about just how long it would be until movies created completely on computer without any actors or expensive special effects would start coming out of Hollywood. Think about it. Television has already devolved into fake reality shows. Why did this happen? Those shows cost almost nothing to create, relatively speaking. I mean Big Brother built one set, wired it for audio and video, then locked a bunch of lowly paid people in the set chasing a cash prize.

While fake reality shows may throw cash for studios, they sacrifice the secondary revenue streams. You aren’t going to see a fake reality show movie hitting the big screen any time soon. Five years out, just how much syndication money will shows like that bring in? I’m guessing close to zero. That isn’t a baseless guess. Just how often do you see sporting events re-run? Yes, a token few on channels like ESPN-Classic (or whatever it is called) but only those which had something making it worth watching the entire thing instead of just a clip.

One thing I haven’t looked into and did not hear in the On the Media piece is who puts out the novelization of a movie. They talked to the authors who write them. The authors said they usually get some version of the script to start with, but nobody said if it was Mega Publisher X who produced and distributed the book or if, as I suspect, the studio itself commissions the book and distributes it. Since large book stores like Barnes & Noble sell movies as well as books the studio should already have a distribution channel in place. Anyone who has waded through quotes for book printing knows the process is time consuming, but not horribly difficult. Putting the book out themselves would give the studio a much larger return than partnering or selling the novelization rights.

In days of old the creation path was book to movie(s) then maybe some follow on books and movies. Properties which started out as scripts remained movies or turned into television shows (think Stargate SG-1 ). Oddly enough Barnes & Noble shows quite a few Stargate SG-1 books, but I haven’t taken the time to see if they are novelizations of existing episodes or stand alone stories never put on film. The first one I clicked on does show a publisher imprint of Fandemonium Ltd. which also seems to own the site.

As I said earlier in this post animation eventually happens to movie franchises in science fiction. At least the successful ones like Stargate.

For decades there has been this dark corner of the publishing world called novelization. In simple terms it is basing a book on a movie. According to interviews in the On the Media episode some directors and studios get a writing team started on the novel in time to have the book released either before or with the movie. If one is looking to maximize revenue from book sales this is the way to do it. The real question for those of us in the writing world is why has it become such a large business now. The authors who write these books even have their own association.

I suspect there are many reasons for this current trend. Most of them have to do with everyone wanting a larger slice of a smaller pie. We have all heard the stories about novels taking more than a year to grind their way through a major publishing house. While we have all heard stories about movies “years in the making” most of that talk has to do with getting funding, hiring all of the talent and lining up the locations/sets. Once shooting starts it isn’t that long before the movie is “in the can” waiting for a studio to release it. A studio doesn’t want to wait years to release a movie. They want to time it to a holiday or Oscar season.

Let us not forget the regularity with which movies based on books become colossal failures or end up embroiled in lawsuits. Syriana is an example of lawsuits while Sahara is a glaring example of a deal which both lost money and involved lawsuits.

You see, the dirty little secret is Hollywood doesn’t want to pay an author or their agent for anything. What they want is for the people who created the property to work for a “percentage.” Once they sign such a contract the creators generally get nothing. It is an accounting method that makes Wall Street banks drool called Hollywood accounting.  Here is a quote I love from that link.

Stan Lee, co-creator of the character Spider-Man, had a contract awarding him 10% of the net profits of anything based on his characters. The film Spider-Man (2002) made more than $800 million in revenue, but the producers claim that it did not make any profit as defined in Lee’s contract, and Lee received nothing. In 2002 he filed a lawsuit against Marvel Comics.

Make all the money you want, fabricate expenses and never pay anyone.

I wonder if the studios try the same thing with the IRS? We all saw how that worked out for Wesley Snipes.

Marvel is a bit of an oddity here. They started with comic books. Moved into cartoons (animation) and decades later got into movies based on the comic book characters. The Spider-Man stuff was definitely based on the origin of Spider-Man cartoon which was based on the comic. (I was around 10 years old when I read/watched that stuff so if I’m not up on my current comic lore don’t shoot.) I actually like Stan Lee making cameos in the movies too. Marvel has achieved what I believe most of the major studios are moving towards.

Book + Movie + merchandise all owned by the studio. Book to be released just in front of or with the movie. No outside agents to mess with or challenge property rights. Given Hollywood accounting, each movie will gross hundreds of millions of dollars yet never turn a profit.

This is the new order of creation. Those of you “hoping” a studio will want to buy the movie rights to your work are hoping a dinosaur really does come back to life.

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