Shelf life for scribes

Scripts are finding a second chapter in paperback editions

Screen scribes are enjoying an increasing presence in bookstores, where scripts published as slim trade paperbacks appear simultaneous with a movie’s release.

Screenplay publishing was once reserved for titles with film scholar appeal, or master scribes like Preston Sturges, Robert Riskin or Woody Allen, whose “collected works” appeared in bulky tomes.

Today, one can walk into such mainstream chain stores as Brentano’s or Barnes & Noble and find most of the standouts from 2003, from John Brownlow’s “Sylvia,” to Richard Curtis’ “Love Actually” and Gary Ross’ adaptation of “Seabiscuit.” They come from an array of publishers, in this case Newmarket Press, St. Martin’s Griffin and Ballantine Books, respectively.

A steady niche

For screenwriters, these books are a new resource, packaged with notes that offer insight into a project’s creative evolution. A few publishers, notably Faber & Faber and Newmarket Press, are finding a steady niche business in this area, publishing dozens of new titles a year.

Does this mean screenplay publishing rights are a lucrative new ancillary for writers? Not exactly. In the U.S., film studios rather than writers usually own the copyrights to produced screenplays, and benefit from advances and royalties from publishers.

And the money is minor by Hollywood standards. A typical advance is around $5,000, say publishing execs and agents.

“For a lot of studios, it’s not worth having their legal department go through the rights clearance,” says Sue Berger, a former screenplay scout for Penguin Books who’s now a film producer (“The Missing”).

The push to publish, then, tends to be initiated by screenwriters and their agents, or by the publishing houses. “It’s only due to the studios being solicited for permission that these screenplays are being published,” says CAA literary agent Michael Paretzian.

Agents see bookstore sales as beneficial for building reputation and visibility for their clients. Paretzian approached Newmarket with an early cut of the film “Pieces of April,” a UA release written and directed by client Peter Hedges. Newmarket published it, as it had an earlier Hedges script, “About a Boy.”

“It’s partly for posterity,” says Hedges, whose film was a hit at Sundance. “But that’s not really the drive. I wanted to be able to add my notes and comments about what was written, and how it changed and why. I used to be a teacher, and I felt that here was an opportunity to present the work in a way that may be useful to someone else.”

A novelist accustomed to controlling his copyrights, Hedges was able to retain book publishing rights for the “Pieces of April” script in a deal negotiated by his lawyer at his request. But that’s unusual. “Usually the best you can do is get them to freeze the rights,” he says.

A few published scripts sell exceedingly well. “Pulp Fiction” is the leader so far at 100,000 copies sold and counting. “Good Will Hunting” has sold more than 65,000 copies.

“People see these as movies that broke the mold, and if you want to write a screenplay, you read them,” says Jonathan Burnham, executive editor at Miramax Books, which publishes many such titles.

Marketing spillover

Other top sellers include “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich,” both by Charlie Kaufman, Alan Ball’s “American Beauty,” as well as “Fargo” and almost anything else by the Coen brothers.

Hundreds of other contemporary titles are now in print — from such kudos magnets as “21 Grams” and “The Hours” to lower-profile fare like “28 Hours” and “Ararat.” Many more are in the pipeline.

Publishers find the niche attractive because marketing costs are virtually non-existent. Some houses employ reps whose job it is to integrate the titles into film school curriculums; apart from that, sales benefit from studio-funded marketing campaigns and theatrical exposure.

“Then you have the DVD releases,” notes Esther Margolis, president of Newmarket Press, which publishes the Shooting Script series, plus a number of pictorial making-of books. “If the film works and wins awards, and capture’s peoples hearts, you have a long period where you can tie in to that.”

Still, there’s at least one major kudos magnet that won’t be turning up as a published script — “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” Houghton Mifflin, which controls the copyright to the J.R.R. Tolkien source books, has published 15 tie-in books around the trilogy to date, but none have included the screenplays — nor will they ever.

“The estate set up contractual restrictions against publishing a screenplay,” says Clay Harper, Tolkien projects director at the house. “They wanted to be sure there was no publishing that would substitute for the novels themselves.”

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