"From the Novel By..."
No HOLLYWOOD camera turns over without a story. The whole vast electric train system is stymied until the story starts. And the novelist is the boy with the story. But most novelists — contrary to their expressed views — are likely to look up, economically speaking, to Hollywood, instead of regarding it as only one branch of the business side of their trade. Unless he is a big enough seller to be content with his royally earnings, the novelist is too often awed by the thought of selling his book to pictures for a whopping sum. This interferes with his perspective in approaching the market and consummating a sale to the best advantage.
If he is lucky he will be in the hands of an experienced agent, who preferably should be a specialist in this field. Literary agents often call in screen agents on a split-commission basis for their clients. Except for big properties, which almost every studio wants, it is advisable to have representation in Hollywood, on the ground, where a fast check of the interest at all studios can be made before reaching the quick decisions it is frequently necessary to make. The novelist doesn’t have to be there, but his agent should have ready access not only to studio story editors but to a string of producers. In this way, also, “package deals” consisting of story and star, and sometimes even the director and producer thrown in, can be arranged.
THEODORE PRATT has sold three of his novels to Hollywood and has worked in the studios. Duell, Sloan & Pearce is publishing his new novel, Miss Dilly Says No.
From then on it is a horse trade, with excellent traders on either side and the novelist in the middle. Frequently he gets squeezed. The large prices — the ones we hear about —are few and far between. Below the much publicized $200,000 paid for a novel, the run-of-the-mill sale is comparatively so modest that it is painful — and slightly embarrassing to the false-front glamour of Hollywood. The everyday prices range from a few thousand to an occasional $25,000. If you get $20,000 for your non-best-seller you are doing very well; at $15,000 you
are doing well; at $10,000 you are still respectable. A number of best-sellers every year go at these prices — or less. The usual tags for original stories are another criterion of reality; it may come as a rude surprise to authors that fora big-budget picture the price is often $5000; for a B picture, $1500.
The potential rewards for the novelist, who knows how to handle himself in the trade marts, however, open a vista that is expansive in direct relation lo the futures of the picture industry and the publishing business, with radio thrown in. The sky is the limit on each — and the picture industry future is tied in with whatever television evolves. In time this combination should offer audiences for the novelist’s work that would have made Mr. Dickens gape. Together with what is promised in the future mass distribut ion of books, which will enhance their picture and television values, it makes the literary mind reel.
The novelist’s trading position is handicapped by the fact that he has no strong organization, like the Dramatists’ Guild or the Screenwriters’ Guild, to back him up. The Authors’ Guild of the Authors’ League is not a tightly-knit club, and can put no pressure whatsoever on the studios. This lack is largely a question of money for proper organization. The situation is regrettable, for the amount necessary would be mere fingernail parings of additional sums the studios could be persuaded to pay for story properties if there were such an organization.
Even without a guild that has enough teeth to bite anything, the author independently faces a rosy future in selling his goods to Hollywood. The immediate picture is brightened by the fact that the producers during the war are able to throw almost anything on film, with little requirement to buy novels, to show a profit. That situation will no longer hold. In addition, because longer runs are possible than in boomless peacetime, fewer pictures need to be made and fewer stories purchased. That condition, too, will pass.
Certain trade practices are being recognized as, to put it mildly, hardly according to Hoyle. If a studio really wants a story, it is no longer necessary for the novelist to agree abjectly that the studio buys his characters and the right to make as many sequels as it likes without further payment. Only one picture, or remakes of the same version, need be allowed. Recently a studio which actually had the right to make sequels of a best-seller without paying the author further money recognized how unethical the arrangement was and paid the author the same sum as for the original purchase.
Another thing going by the board is the practice of giving an author twenty-four hours to accept an offer, and threatening to cut the offer in half or withdraw it entirely unless it is accepted before the deadline. Soon, perhaps, announcing that $80,000 has been paid, instead of the $20,000 actually paid, will be generally recognized as being a bad trade practice. It has proved to be a sad public relations practice, with the public skeptical about such things and believing no announced price.
Even with these and other reforms in the relations of the studios with novelists, there still remains a long way to go before the novelist, from his point of view, receives an equitable share for what he contributes. In the matter of credits alone it is long past time for the novelist to obtain better recognition. At present his name on the billing is second in importance to that of the screenwriters, a purely Hollywood point of view. A more logical handling is the practice followed by British film makers, who list the title, next credit the author, and then follow with the names of the screenwriters.
Few authors enjoy the delightful spots occupied by the popular Rex Beach and Edna Berber, who get large sums for a one-picture lease on their works. Then the rights revert to them to be sold again in future years, as Beach has already done.
Except in other rare instances the novelist’s share has been judged on the picture market value of his book and the trading ability he and his agent show at the time of the sale. Disparities for books of apparently equal value are enormous, as witness the $8500 paid for Guadalcanal Diary and the $100,000 for Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Also, inexperience of both author and agent accounts for jumping at the first offer that comes along or, in some tragic cases, for avariciously and unwisely being so grasping that the studios bow out and the cash register rings up a resounding “No sale!”
The fairest method, seemingly, of judging the worth of a book for pictures is to base it upon some kind of sliding scale, paying the author on the basis of the royalties he is paid for book publication. Several methods of doing this are coming to the fore. After bitterly opposing the practice for years, the studios are now themselves setting the precedent of paying novelists a lump sum and, in addition, so much more for every copy the published book sells, up to a stated limit.
Hemingway was one of the first to get this attractive deal. He was in a position to force it with his For Whom the Bell Tolls. The luscious MGM novel prize of $125,000 makes this provision for additional payment. Twentieth Century-Fox’s payments for stories by servicemen follow the same procedure. With the studios making such offers, more and more novelists should be able to include the method in their picture sale contracts.
The latest kind of deal coming into favor is based directly upon the popularity of a book in various fields. This arrangement is usually made before publication or even while the work is in progress. A flat sum is paid to tie up the book for the interested studio. The contract reads that so much additional is to be paid for each of stated levels of sales the book reaches, with a whopping sum if it goes over 100,000; also sizable lump sums are paid if the book is distributed by one of the book clubs, if it is serialized in a national magazine, if it is widely syndicated or reprinted in a cheap edition. Hollywood, interested in tangibles, pays for two things: proof of popular appeal and a ready-made audience.
All these arrangements are certainly better than the usual haphazard horse trades. But being arbitrary instead of exact measurements of a story’s worth for its picture version, they still leave much to be desired. There have been instances of books which could have only a very modest sale, — with no hope of book club, reprint, serialization, or syndicate distribution, — and were sold to pictures for as little as $500, which returned, in their movie versions, a net profit of over a million dollars.
Should, or should not, the author receive some of this enormous profit? The picture company can argue on the negative side that $500 was all the property was worth at the time of the purchase; that the company’s screenwriters, stars, investment, showmanship, experience, and distribution accounted for the size of the profit. The author can argue that the intrinsic values in his story accounted for a part of the profit and therefore he should share proportionately.
The ideal arrangement is a flat payment to the novelist for the right of the picture company to make his book into a movie, and also a percentage of profits. Unfortunately, a novelist’s utopia is difficult to achieve and is not the same as that of a picture studio. What this percentage should be, upon what based, is hard to say. The accounting of the profits raises another question that is just as hard. Already shrewd screenwriters in a position to obtain it are taking a percentage of picture earnings in preference to salary. Sometimes this percentage is given by independent producers, operating on a shoestring, as their only way to obtain good stories, writers, directors, and stars. When a “sleeper” — that is, an unexpectedly successful picture — comes through, everybody collects a small fortune.
Meanwhile the novelist-studio relationship is one of mutual enmity. But they are not natural enemies, for they complement each other too closely. Each can benefit by a clarification of their dealings.