Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Film Studies

I recently read a piece online about a young graphic novelist whose book, according to the article, "is being made into a movie." The excited creator talked about the screenwriting process and casting decisions--which stars they imagined playing which roles--and it went on like that for a while until deep in the article, when we learn that the creator's big break had been getting their story optioned.

Oh. Ohhhh. Poor kid.

An option means that you give a movie or TV studio the right to develop a film or show based on your work for some length of time, maybe a couple of years. Ideally they pay you some money for it, but it's not a deal or a commitment. It's just your promise not to sell your idea to anybody else while they think about it. I probably know a dozen writers, cartoonists and graphic novelists who've had their stories optioned (and I hardly know anybody). Fewer than one in a hundred will ever get made.

One friend has had the same project optioned by three different movie studios in succession, with nothing to show for it. Another friend had Will Smith sniffing around his comic because Smith wanted something for one of his kids to star in, until the kid got too old to play the character. An option sounds real neat but, from what I've seen, at a certain level in the business it's kind of routine and usually disappointing.

So going to the press super-excited about your option is a little embarrassing. Understandable--who wouldn't start drafting their Oscars speech?--but embarrassing.

I know a few people whose movies actually got made. Michael Fry, who's an Internet acquaintance, co-created the comic strip "Over the Hedge," which became an animated film from Dreamworks in 2006. Phoebe Gloeckner's "Diary of a Teenage Girl" just debuted to rave reviews at the Sundance festival. And of course Jeff Kinney's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" has done pretty well. (I guess I also know some of the Schulz Studio people, but "Peanuts" doesn't count.)

Jeff is the exception that proves another rule of getting your stuff made into a movie, which is that creators are often disappointed to discover they have no say in what happens to their creation and are unlikely to become rich and famous. Ninety-nine percent of the time, a studio buys the rights for a relatively modest sum, hires its own writers, and cuts the creator out of the picture. If you want your movie to get made, that's the deal you sign. I'm always surprised by how many creators say they're OK with that. But Jeff is in the 1% who insisted on significant participation in the filmmaking and got it. He's credited as a producer and spends a lot of time hands-on on set. He had the leverage to say "my way or the highway"; not many other people do.

I am not at "a certain level in the business," just a kid with my nose pressed against the glass.

Several years ago an independent movie producer contacted me about optioning Mom's Cancer. He was a real nice guy but had no money to offer, and as we talked I didn't get a feeling he really knew what to do with the story. Also, at the time, Mom's Cancer was getting some press, and Kid Sis had her own circle of independent filmmaking friends in Hollywood whom we thought might be interested. So because I wanted to leave my options (heh!) open and not tie up the rights with no benefit to me, I declined. And that was my only nibble.

The year Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow was nominated for some awards, a scout for 20th Century Fox e-mailed and asked to meet with me at the San Diego Comic-Con. Here's one thing you may not know about me: I am the world's worst negotiator. I replied along the lines of, "Geez, I don't see why you'd be interested, it barely has a plot."

Nevertheless, we had our meeting, and the scout was so excited he got me excited. I began to see the movie in my head. I still couldn't imagine how anyone could film my book, but I could envision a movie-about-being-a-movie in the same way WHTTWOT was a comic-about-being-a-comic. Sort of a meta-movie about Space Age history with scenes featuring my Cap Crater character done in the styles of science fiction directors like Fritz Lang, George Pal and Stanley Kubrick. It would be brilliant! In the back of my head, I started working on my Oscars speech.

A couple of weeks later, the scout sent me a brief e-mail. Fox was going to pass because, it turned out, my book barely had a plot.

Who knew?

As I've matured in the comics world, I've learned the importance of keeping a level head. Don't be crushed by the lows, don't get too elated by the highs. Some things that seem like big opportunities aren't, and other things that seem like small potatoes turn into something good. Best just to roll with it, say "yes" to a lot, and see what happens. Still. It hardly ever hurts to dream.

In a world where Christopher Plummer IS Sparky the Inventor, my Oscars speech is ready.

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