I’m always in awe of anybody who has managed to write a novel. I find the idea overwhelming and quite wonderful. In the movie business, people look to other people’s success to guide them in their choices about what movies to support and what movies to develop. If you’ve created a book, there’s going to be admiration for that—you’ve already met with some success. There’s no guarantee that anyone will take notice unless it’s a bestseller, but it’s a tangible asset.
So say you’ve written a book and are hoping to get some people in the movie industry to look at it. How do you approach them? Well, you look at their body of work. If there’s a director you like, and you see that the kinds of projects they do are in the style of your book, you write them a letter. In the letter, you let them know you’re familiar with their work and that you think your project would be a way for them to grow their creativity. People tend to send out letters to thousands of people, and that makes everyone feel anonymous. If you want people to pay attention, you need to approach them personally and figure out how to translate your project into something they can discover and get excited by.
You should be aware that you’ll have to sign a release form. Before we look at your project, we make you sign a form that gives us your first born, your house, your ownership of the moon, and so forth. We’re in a business where people frequently sue because they think someone has stolen their ideas. But an idea is not the same thing as a finished project, and the release form is a way of protecting ourselves in case we’re already working on something that’s similar to an idea someone sends us. Out of my whole career, I’ve seen very, very few stolen pieces. It’s really not worth the effort, because if you actually did steal someone’s idea, by the time you got to the release of the movie, you would have millions or even tens or hundreds of millions of dollars at stake. If the original owner of the idea turned up at that point, it would cause a panic among the people financing the movie. So people go out of their way to make sure everything is above board. My feeling is that there’s no real danger in signing a release, and it gives you an opportunity to get people to read what you’ve created.
If you have someone willing to look at your book, you need to manage their perceptions of it, because it’s all about perception in this game. You need to sum up your story in a catchy and appealing way (Alien was pitched as Jaws in space, for example) so that the buyer sees it as a financial opportunity. That’s part of our responsibility as creators. We have to put as much creativity into the act of selling our material as we do into the act of creating it. Part of that means finding allies—if you don’t have an agent, maybe your lawyer can sign a letter and send it for you. Maybe you have a professor or a friend who is a well-known author who is willing to sign off on what you’ve created. If your letters are personal and show that you’ve done your research, sometimes those kinds of endorsements can be enough to get someone interested. And you can try going to actors, many of whom have production companies. Go to the actors’ agents and managers, people who the actors are paying to find them great roles. They’re not hard to get to.
One of the things I do at USC is to make my MFA students read How to Win Friends and Influence People. What does that have to do with writing? Well, we’re human beings telling stories to other human beings, and we have to reach out to them. That’s true when you’re writing your story, and it’s also true when you’re trying to sell it. You have to show people that you know something about them and appreciate what they’ve done. If you can make your project seem like the logical next step in their personal journeys, they’ll definitely take a look at it.
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