The trend seems inescapable. Studios are obsessed with adaptations. The movie business, which used to be powered by original screenplays, is now concerned mostly with converting pre-existing works into films. If it isn’t a comic book, graphic novel, book, foreign film or video game, well…no one’s interested.
That’s the conventional wisdom, at least.
But is it true?
I don’t have any statistics to back the claim up, but let’s stipulate that everyone’s gut sense is true: studios are more motivated to fund adaptations than they are originals.
It’s nothing new, of course. Movie studios have always chased best-sellers and Broadway musicals, but as culture grows around itself, the movies inspire books that inspire movies that inspire musicals that become CD’s that become movies.
That’s how John Waters can write an original film called Hairspray that becomes a musical called Hairspray that becomes a film of the musical called Hairspray.
But why are the studios so attracted to adaptations?
Here are some theories (with attendant debunking).
Adaptations Have Marketing Advantages
Competing for eyeballs has become a bloodsport in our culture, and if your movie is based on material that has already planted its flag in the audience’s brain, you can draft behind that awareness. Of course, this theory doesn’t explain the entire obsession, since many adaptations are of yet-to-be-released novels or extremely obscure comics.
Adaptations Are Easier To Create
Writing something new is hard, you see, whereas adapting a pre-existing work into a screenplay is like a cakewalk. Easier for the studios, easier for the writers.
Except that’s pretty much never the case. Movies often differ wildly from their source material, and the process of taking something that wasn’t written to be a movie and turning it into something that is can be brutal and, occasionally, impossible.
I’m a huge fan of the graphic novel Watchmen. I cannot fathom how the screenwriters managed to adapt all that material in a satisfying way. That’s an extremely high degree of difficulty.
Adaptations Do Better At The Box Office
That seems plausible. Think of all the huge hit films from comic books alone. The only problem is that it’s apparently not true. According to Variety, when you look at the top 20 films from each of the last ten years, you find that movies from original screenplays (and their sequels) actually earn more than adaptations! Don’t believe it? Well, consider The Matrix, all the Pixar films, the Austin Powers movies, Meet The Parents, Rush Hour…even our lowly little Scary Movie series.
So if it’s not money earned, then…?
Adaptations Are Cheaper To Make
Well, that just doesn’t seem very likely. Sure, big original spec sales like the one for Deja Vu can cost a pretty penny, but so can buying out the underlying rights to a bestseller.
So what’s left?
Maybe the dreaded psychological explanation?
Adaptations Feel Less Risky To Make
I’m sure everyone who read The Matrix thought it was a fantastic screenplay. That’s not the Big Question. The Big Question is…should you make it or not?
I’m happy that I don’t have to make those decisions. Not my problem. But for those who do, I suspect that there’s a comfort in making adaptations that goes beyond even the fact of the so-called “built in audience” (which often isn’t really built in).
No one would argue that there’s a natural human tendency that connects “belief in” with “realness,” and I think people view underlying material as more real than screenplays.
Books aren’t written to be movies. They’re written to be books. Same for plays and graphic novels and epic songs and video games. They are their own ends. They are, for better or worse, completed works of art.
Screenplays are not. Screenplays are transitional art. They are a theory, an imagining…but of something else.
I’ll argue that studios and producers are occasionally seduced by the notion of adaptation because it grounds them and their risk in something that is very real and permanent.
Does that make sense? No, not particularly, but I’m not here to pen jeremiads against irrationality. We are all irrational to one extent or another. What matters more, I think, is how to navigate the predictable currents of bias when we encounter them.
Hollywood will always buy original scripts. I don’t think they’ve gone completely out of style. Still, given the predilection for source material, more and more screenwriters are doing something very bold and very smart.
They’re writing their own.
My friend Larry Doyle, for instance, had a story for a very funny screenplay, but no one was jumping at it.
So he wrote the very funny book first. And, somewhat predictably, once it was real, he was hired to adapt his novel into the screenplay he had intended to write in the first place.
The movie is coming out next spring.
My former writing partner did something similar. He and his partner wrote the manuscript for a graphic novel, sold it to a publishing company, and then turned around and sold the film rights to Ben Stiller’s company, where they are writing the script.
I think you’re going to see this more and more. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not required. And there are still plenty of smart producers and executives who know a great original screenplay when they read one.
But…if your material is offbeat or challenging or not “instantly gettable” as the town so often desires, consider this another path. The psychology of the buyer doesn’t always make sense, but just as it’s capable of working against you…
…there’s no reason to think you can’t turn it around and make it work for you.
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) – Four writers involved with a Writers Guild of America organizing effort at writer-director-producer Tyler Perry‘s cable TV show “House of Payne” have been fired.Just going by what’s been reported, the WGAw has a pretty good chance of winning this one. You don’t employ people for years, and then suddenly decide they’re no good and need to be fired shortly after they ask for union representation. That’s a blatant no-no, and I expect that Tyler Perry is going to get his ass handed to him on this one.
The production company says they were fired for cause, but the union said Thursday that they were dismissed because they were involved in the organizing effort. The WGA West plans to picket Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta when the facility opens the wekend of October 3.
The guild claims that the problems began in April when the writers — Kellie Griffin, Christopher Moore, Teri Brown-Jackson and Lamont Ferrell — were among seven scribes seeking to negotiate a first WGA contract with Perry’s production company, House of Payne. The company produces “House of Payne” and the upcoming TBS show “Meet the Browns.” No contract has been signed.
Perry’s attorney, Matt Johnson, said that the four were fired because of poor work performance. Griffin, Moore, Brown-Jackson and Ferrell had worked on more than 100 episodes of Perry’s TBS series, now syndicated on Fox. The three remaining writers were asked to stay on, and two did.
“We continue to work toward a resolution of their contract,” Johnson said.
The WGA has filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming the four were fired unjustly and that Payne’s company bargained in bad faith.
In thinking about this case, as well as some other organizing problems the WGA has been dealing with, I started to wonder a bit about how the union views one of its own working rules. The working rules govern the conduct of WGAw members. If you violate them, you can be fined…all the way up to the entirety of what you earn on the project for which you’re in violation.
Some of the working rules are obvious. “Don’t accept less than minimum for your work” is a no-brainer. Without that one, union members would be caught in an undercutting race to the bottom. But perhaps the single most important working rule is Working Rule #8.
No member shall accept employment with, nor option or sell literary material to, any person, firm or corporation who is not signatory to the applicable MBAs.Why is this the most important rule we have? Well, the companies own subsidiaries that have agreements with our union, but they also own subsidiaries that do not. For instance, Disney has a company that has a deal with the WGA, but it owns plenty of companies that can do non-union work.
Violation of this Rule shall automatically subject the member to a fine, the maximum amount of which shall not exceed 100% of the remuneration received from such non-signatory.
Working Rule #8 is so important because it requires union members to only work for union companies. Right? Disney can make a non-union live action movie if it wants to, but it can’t get any members of the WGA to write on those movies, because those writers would be violating Working Rule #8.
The key limitation to Working Rule #8 is “applicable MBAs.” What that means is that Working Rule #8 only restricts me as long as we’re talking about a project that could be covered under our existing collective bargaining agreeements.
Our MBA doesn’t cover feature animation, so I can do a non-union feature animated project if I want. But our MBA does cover live action features, it does cover network prime time, it does cover game shows, it does cover basic cable…
Uh…wait. Whoa. Hold up.
Every feature writer knows they can’t work non-union gigs. I don’t know any feature writer in the WGA who has ever broken this rule. But isn’t our entire argument on reality TV that most of those shows should be covered by the MBA as game shows? And if we have a deal on basic cable, why are we trying to get WGA deals on shows that WGA writers are working on?
Why are any WGA writers working in scripted reality or basic cable shows if they’re non-union?
Why are we not enforcing Working Rule #8?
The easy answer is that no one wants to “blame the victim.” If WGA writers are working non-union for Tyler Perry’s basic cable show or for a “reality” game show like American Idol, we shouldn’t punish them by taking their salaries. We should attack the shows.
Well, at the risk of saying something extremely unpopular (yet again), how about we do both?
If every WGA writer working in reality and basic cable stopped tomorrow, that would have a serious impact on those shows. An immediate impact, one would hope. If a reality show chose to continue on without WGA writers, then so be it. But could most basic cable shows do so? I doubt it.
I don’t mean to sound harsh, but if I nor any of my feature film sisters and brothers line our pockets or support our families with non-union work (in order to not undercut each other on union work), why should game show or basic cable writers be able to get away with it? Why aren’t we demanding that Working Rule #8 be applied fairly and consistently across the board?
Hell, we don’t even have to apply the fines. Use it as a lever if you want. If a basic cable show has a staff that’s 50% WGA, apply #8 to those writers and try and force a WGA deal on the show.
Look, there’s no chance we’ll ever get real jurisdiction over basic cable if we’re soft on Working Rule #8. No chance at all. The companies will always find the path of least resistance, and here’s an area where we’ve just rolled over and not bothered to resist at all, even though we have the means to do so…and even though we ask many of our other members to do so.
It appears that at least some of the writers protesting their termination on Payne are WGA members.
I support the fight to get them a WGA contract. I support the WGAw’s unfair labor practice charge against Tyler Perry.
But I have a bigger question that I think deserves an answer.
Why were some WGA writers allowed to violate Working Rule #8 for a hundred episodes on a non-union show?
Perhaps there’s something I’m missing. If so, I’m all ears. But I fail to see how we’re ever going to win an organizing war if for every writer we recruit through the front door, there’s a writer walking out the back.