In these next series of articles, I will explore the world of the screen writers, producers, movie companies, their developers, directors, actors, and the editing process. I will focus on what happens to a classic and contemporary story or novel, and the novelists, and contributors to the film-making process.
From Book to Movie Screen
The history of movie making is about 100 years old. It has undergone many changes, and technical innovations but one thing has never changed: the stories they tell on the screen come from the imagination of the writer.
One of the first motion pictures, or movies as we know them today, was the 1902 “A Trip to the Moon” by Georges Mêliés, shot at the Edison Studio Lab. This short but historic film was adapted from Jules Verne's (1828-1905), “From the Earth to the Moon” (1865). Most of the early film ideas for a story came from classic novels, along with the narrative inserts that the viewer read in place of sound, (The Silent Era).
As a writer myself, I would like to have one of my works made into a movie, but thus far, I have not caught the attention of the film industry, and I, as have many others, keep on trying. The most likely thing to happen would be what has happened to others.
The death of an author sometimes brings their work to someone’s attention and then the process is made less of a legalist nightmare for the film companies to bring the work to the movie screen. A few things need to be sorted out before a written work such as a novel or short story can become a movie or TV show, or a “miniseries” as the entertainment industry would put it.
Copyrights need to be observed and “rights to an author’s work” need to be purchased for the proposed film project. This might take years or as few as a few months. Once the lawyers get through writing out agreements and contracts, and of course the first checks are cashed, the producers can start their work.
“The Treatment” is a synopsis or “short version” of the story or novel that may or may not be approved by the original novelist due to death or just not wanting to get involved, but in most cases these days author’s artistic control is written into the contractual agreements from the first meetings.
“The Treatment," or the story’s résumé, may undergo many changes. Many of these changes have to do with what parts of the “book’s story” that may have to be omitted, or rewritten to make the movie’s format fit into a “time frame” usually two to two and a half hours, some have gone for three hours and some minutes, but the standard is around two hour and fifteen minutes. This includes the tilte sequence and end credits. When you calculate the actual story time, you will end up with about two hours to depict a book that took the readers two to five days of reading time. As in any résumé, it is written to draw attention to the proposed project for the “money people."
The one thing that holds the whole process together is, you guessed it, money.
Getting the money to make the film is the producer’s job, and making their project into a “hot commodity” is not an easy one. It helps if the book or work is a “best seller” or at best a well-known or a “classic”; if the author is well known helps sometimes, and that the screen play or script reflects that in the first few paragraphs, known as “The Hook”.
The approved treatment now goes to a screenwriter who reads the original novel or story and writes the screenplay, adapting the work for shooting into a movie. This might go through many screenwriters and changes as well, depending on the production team which has a wish list of directors and actors in mind. The possible directors, or actors might have time conflicts or issues with the subject matter or just do not like the script as it is written.
If the project is picked up by a film company, it turns it over to its “development department” to check out the viability, or moneymaking potential of the project based on usually notability of directors and actors wish list. Much fun has been made about this part of the process by Hollywood itself, but it is all business, but business Hollywood style; as in any business having an “in” cannot hurt.
They usually want to meet the author, if they can, or the ones that have the copyrights and feel them out as to not only their concerns, usually how much of the money pie they want, or how much artistic license they can take with the work, or if the author will want to have “author’s artistic control”. The whole thing can fall apart at this juncture in time.
All this takes place before one frame of film is ever shot, or any real money is committed, and might take years. But once the money is in place and a director, and film-making team, leading actors are in place the film project enters another chapter, visual concept and sequence development. This is done in the “Storyboard” phase. This is where the art of the filmmakers truly begins.
The book turned into a treatment into a screenplay is now depicted in cartoon-like drawings on a wall or board. This collection of cartoons are arranged and rearranged to outline the movie and may or may not involve the author of the original novel, but usually does not, unless the author wants to invoke artistic control. This could also be a breaking point.
The author is a storyteller, and a filmmaker is a storyteller too, but the formats and procedures are quite different. The author works alone and in private, while the director and screenwriter are the heads of large teams of artist and technicians that tell a visual story, even far more involved than a theatrical stage production, where I learned the seeds of my art.
It is now that the script is rewritten into a “filming format” and scene numbers are assigned. But the screenwriter’s job is not done yet. I will cover what happens next but keep in mind that what you see on the screen is far from done even at this point. And the screenwriter’s job is not done until the film is “In the can” as the term goes in the industry.
There are numerous film companies, four or five pages of them in single line entries; some will make movies that are worth seeing, and two or three a year actually release a “money-maker”.
Statistics are not really kept, but the normal is as difficult as getting a book published by, let us say Random House. About 1,500 works, from poems, short stories and would-be novels are proposed for publication per month and 20 hit the bookstores in one form or another a year.
The self-publication industry is a lot better, but keep in mind the author foots the bill for publication, and marketing programs for his or her work, and it is a gamble as to if the work sells well or not. But, the push is up to the writer, and it is getting noticed and possibly generating some buzz is the real payoff.
Let us say 10 of these many works gets noticed by a film production department and maybe five get to the development department of any of the many film companies and two or three get made into movies, and maybe one will be a money-maker, two will lose money for any one of them, “The Flop” or one of the many film companies will come up with a so-called “Blockbuster”.
More next time.