Can’t Sell Your Original Screenplay? Try Sidewinding Your Way to Success

 by Lew Ritter

adaptationSelling a script to Hollywood can be hard. I had read stories in the trade papers of writers who gained entrance into the Hollywood system by optioning a true story. They gained the rights to a book or magazine article and then developed an interesting pitch letter for studios to evaluate.

They might hire you as the writer, or simply pay you a fee and send you on your way. Either way, you have a credit and a foot in the door.

My first attempt was back in the late 90’s early 2000’s. I was searching for books in my local library. I came across a book about two unsung Jewish brothers at the time of the 1941 German invasion.

Most of their family had been killed by the Germans. They found sanctuary in a remote wooded forest. Many other Jewish refugees made their way into the brother’s forest camp. They formed a partisan brigade composed of formerly defenseless Jews. Partisans could not defeat the Germans by themselves, but they tied up needed manpower and supplies A true story about an unsung group of Jews heroes who fought back against the Holocaust. It seemed like the perfect book.

After tracking down the publisher, I discovered that someone, probably a studio had already obtained the rights to the book. Several years later, I was reading about upcoming movies. DEFIANCE, the true story of the two Jewish brothers would be being released in a few months. It was written by Edward Zwick, the writer of GLORY and the TV series THIRTYSOMETHING.

For several years, I gave up the hope of finding the elusive unclaimed adaptation. During the last school year, I worked in a High School library. Every couple of days, I examined the boxes of new books arriving from the publishers. In particular, I was interested in examining the incoming best sellers.

Many of the students were interested in reading the most recent best sellers. Y.A. or Young Adult Fiction was the current rage. Everyone was looking for the next Hunger Games series. My idea was different. I was looking for a book that interested me enough that I could obtain the rights to the book.

I skimmed the incoming books and found a book that interested me. It was a book about a teenage girl discovering that she was either a robot or an advanced life form. I was excited and I called a veteran writer friend. I read the back cover to him. Both of us were intrigued

What I discovered was that most of these books had been scooped up by Hollywood. Many publishers send out advance copies of Y.A. fiction to Hollywood in the hopes of it becoming a book or series. Suzanne Collins and J.K. Rowling had become very wealthy after their book series became features.

In my case, the book had been optioned by SHONDALAND. This is the production company of SHONDA RHIMES, the powerful showrunner of GREY’S ANATOMY, and just about every other hit show on ABC. There was no way that I could hope to compete with this production company.

My quest for the next Hunger Games was over for the moment. However, I had read that China was an exploding market for TV and films. The Chinese were devouring material, especially if it involved Chinese history or some story set in Asia.

While finishing my lunch, I rummaged along the shelves of the used books. These were cast off books donated by teachers who wanted to give these books a new home. In short, they would be thrown out in several months when the school went into a house cleaning mode.

While examining the collection, I ran across a book called INTERIORS. It seemed perfect. It dealt with a beautiful Chinese government agent and her love interest, an American lawyer. I grabbed the book before it could vanish.

I started reading. A book dealing with modern day China. Lots of atmosphere and interesting characters. I was in movie writer’s heaven. I again contacted my friend the veteran writer. He was excited, it seemed like a perfect book to adapt into a movie or TV series.

These days, most authors have their own web page. It provides an easy way for them to publicize their books and provided a method for contacting them. I found the author’s website. She was a prolific author and was kind enough to respond to my efforts to gain the rights to the book. She told me that no one had ever approached her about gaining the rights for the series. She suggested contacting her agent, it was possible to discuss obtaining the movie rights.

Over the next few days, I devoured the book. I wrote a synopsis of the book in order to pitch it to my friend and a producer associate. The story, while interesting was nothing startlingly original. It dealt with a missing village girl. She goes to work for an American company and suffered a horrible fate and vanishes. The Chinese government agent goes undercover and discovers the unpleasant truth.

The problem was that the story was old news. There was no twist or new wrinkle that made the story fresh or unique. On top of that, any story that criticizes the present Chinese government would not get produced by the Chinese market.

I read several other books in the series. Again, the stories were nicely written and decent mysteries. The problem was that the stories were nothing earth shaking. We thought of turning it into a weekly TV series. However, problems arose as to stories and the idea died as quickly as it was born.

Ever the optimist, I was at my gym and grabbed a copy of NEW JERSEY MONTHLY. It featured an interesting article about policing in Camden, one of Jersey’s most crime ridden cities. The police had found a way to reduce crime and improve community relations.

I thought perhaps, I had found the next HILL STREET BLUES. I sent an email to the local editor. After several weeks, he replied that he was leaving his position. He would turn my request over to his replacement. I never heard anything further from them.

The moral of the story is that even though the odds are stacked against you. It could be worthwhile to keep your eyes out for some true story or book. It might be the proverbial nugget in the goldmine that could be adapted into a movie or TV series. It is one of the avenues that you had to explore as a writer trying to break into the Hollywood machine.