British author and screenwriter, Danny King, thought his ship had come in when a Hollywood producer snapped up the film rights to one of his books. But seven years on there’s still no film. This is what happened…
As incredible as it is to walk into a bookshop and see your novel sitting there on the shelf (albeit right at the back of the shop buried behind a pile of bloody Sophie Kinsellas as usual) there’s one thing that all authors secretly dream of – having their book adapted into a big screen Hollywood blockbuster. Any author who says not is either lying or one of those weird kids who grew up without a telly.
I’ve come close several times. Most of my books have been optioned at one stage of another by various producers but for all the hope, promises and bullshit I’ve seen only one of them ever made it all the way from page to screen. The Burglar Diaries as the BBC sitcom Thieves Like Us.
So I’m going to tell you a little about one of the options I signed and what happened. I can’t tell you WHY it happened, because most of it happened thousands of miles away in Hollywood. All I can tell you is my end – the author’s story. In 2007 Serpent’s Tail published my seventh book, School for Scumbags. For those of you who’ve not read it (which we will assume for the purposes of this article is everyone on planet Earth and beyond) the book’s about a 13-year-old juvenile delinquent called Wayne Banstead who is expelled from his latest school for trying to stick up the tuck shop, only to find himself hauled off to a ‘special’ reform school for the worst offenders in the country. The teachers have an unorthodox way of working and an ulterior motive and Wayne finds himself way out of his league and forced to do some very quick growing up. In a nutshell it’s kind of a cross between Harry Potter and Scum if you want a lazy analogy.
It was published the same day as the final Harry Potter book and did okay. Not quite as well as Harry Potter but it did enough to keep me in beer and crisps for a few weeks anyway.
But things started when a few months later I was contacted out of the blue by a guy from Hollywood. He was working with a producer called David Matalon and wanted to know if the rights to School for Scumbags were available. According to David Matalon’s IMDB profile he’s the producer of movies such as When Saturday Comes, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Color of Night but this really only tells part of the story. David had been a studio bigwig with Tri-Star Pictures in the 1980s and New Regency Pictures in the 1990/2000s so he knew his way around LA.
I later found out they’d come across my book by accident. At that time I shared an agent with Lee Child (it wasn’t a 50/50 split) and while researching Jack Reacher he’d come across Scumbags on my agent’s website. They’d bought it, read it and come to the conclusion it would make a great movie, hence their approach.
Moreover, two more Hollywood producers started chasing my book too, Scarlett Lacey at Mandalay Pictures (Enemy at the Gates, Into the Blue) and Moshe Diamant (Timecop, Universal Soldiers etc). Who knows how they got wind of it. I guess they’re all tapping each other’s phones out there but either way I had a decision to make.
I eventually optioned the rights to David Matalon. Was it the right thing to do? I didn’t know. Ultimately I only had my gut to go by and most of his advice up until now had been about beer and kebabs (“go on, have another one”). But I signed all the same and allowed myself to dream.
For those of you who don’t know, an option deal works like this. A retainer is paid to reserve the rights of the book for a set period. It could be £1,000 for 18 months or it could be £20,000 for 12 months. There are no set prices. It all depends on who you are, Lee Child or Danny King? I fell into the latter price bracket unfortunately.
But money is money and you don’t have to pay it back even if they don’t make the movie. All that happens is it gets deducted from the eventual Purchase Price – this is the figure paid to buy the rights outright if the movie goes into production – traditionally on the first day of shooting. Again, there are no set figures here but it’s usually a percentage of the budget with minimum and maximum figures stipulated in the contract. eg. 2.5% of the hard budget with a floor and ceiling figures of $250,000 and $500,000 means if the budget of the movie is below $10million you’ll get $250,000. If it’s above $20million, you’ll get $500,000. Again, it depends on who you are and how much the producer wants your book, but it certainly helps to have three Hollywood producers chasing your book in the first place.
Sounds great doesn’t it? Mortgage freedom here I come. BUT… and this is the big BUT, you only get this money if the movie actually gets made.
So, while all this was going on I decided to try to exploit the situation further and offered to write the screenplay too. In fact I didn’t even offer, I just quickly wrote it up, figuring even if they didn’t want to use it I might make enough of a nuisance of myself to trouser some going away money. After all, Hollywood producers seemed to have it by the bucket load and I was a pretty cheap date.
David Matalon agreed to read my script but only after I’d signed a waiver agreeing not to sue in the event the finished film contained similarities (if they didn’t use my script). Which of course it would. Because my script was an adaptation of my own book so naturally there would be similarities. In the end it didn’t matter. He read it but didn’t want it. Thanks very much now off you go. He’d decided to set the film in the US and use a US writer, which was his prerogative. He’d bought it. He could set it on the moon and get ants with inky feet to write it if he wanted, just so long as he spelt my name right on the cheque.
So he hired a couple of hot young Hollywood screenwriters and I sat back and fantasised about what to wear as I walked up the red carpet on Sunset Boulevard (a sandwich board as I flogged my five minutes of fame to Subways and Dave’s Autos probably).
The first 18 months slipped by with no sign of the film but David extended the option for a further 18 months and told me there’d been script problems and he’d had to let the hot young Hollywood screenwriters go in favour of a slightly cooler but more experienced Hollywood screenwriter. But things were still looking good. James Franco, who I only knew at that time as Spiderman’s moody mate, had read my book (an actor who reads books? Surely not) but he’d loved it and had agreed to be in the film so I waited once more.
Another 18 months passed by and once more David contacted me about extending the option again. The slightly cooler but more experienced Hollywood screenwriter hadn’t worked out either and he’d had to hire yet another new screenwriter. But, on the upside, he’d just agreed a production deal with Andy Vajna, who was the producer of such blockbusters as Rambo, Total Recall and Terminator Salvation etc.
Fantastic. David Matalon? James Franco? Andy Vajna? Rambo? These were huge Hollywood names and they were attached to my movie. How could this not happen? So I signed once more and continued to dream.
But another 12 months slipped by and still the film didn’t happen. In the meantime my career was going down the pan. Profile Books had taken over Serpent’s Tail and subsequently dropped me from their list of authors. My agency (Darley Anderson) dumped me shortly afterwards although it took me a year or so to notice for all the use they’d been the previous ten years. And my producer at the BBC had moved on to pastures new following Thieves Like Us, which left me and my once promising career dead in the water.
It’s funny but in 2007 I had a sitcom on the telly, a recurring publishing deal, a play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and a Hollywood film deal but by 2010 I’d lost the lot. All except for my Hollywood deal. That was all I had and I clung to it harder than ever.
But still nothing happened. Time rolled by. The rejection letters mounted up. And my book went out of print.
Then in 2011 a young producer called Matt Sinnreich contacted me about the rights to School for Scumbags. I explained that David Matalon had the option but that it was due to expire soon so he told me not to resign and flew out from LA to see me in Chichester (where I live). I’d already made up my mind to resign with David again but I figured I’d be polite and listen to what Matt had to say.
So I took him to my local, made him drink bitter to see what expression he pulled and then took him out for dinner afterwards. At least I took him to the restaurant. After dinner I just pointed him in the direction of where he had to pay. Matt was an impressive young guy, gave a good pitch and blew me away with some top-level backers, although by this point famous Hollywood names had started to lose some of their currency with me.
He left his offer on the table and I agonised over what to do. Did I stick with the devil I knew and take another option fee from a seasoned Hollywood producer or did I take a chance and sign with someone who merely knew seasoned Hollywood producers?
In the end I went with the devil I knew and had to tell Matt he’d had a wasted trip.
This time David assured me they were now back on track. John Moore (Behind Enemy Lines, Flight of the Phoenix, Max Payne) had agreed to direct and they had a script they all thought they could work with. So I resigned for 24 more months and shortly afterwards heard that John Moore had been announced as the new director on the fifth Die Hard movie, A Good Day to Die Hard.
I guess this was when I finally realised it wasn’t going to happen when the 24 months were almost up and I obviously had regrets. What if I’d signed with Scarlett Lacey or Moshe Diamant in the first place? Would I have a Hollywood film out by now? Of course there’s no way of knowing but it’s a fun game to play at 4am when you can’t get to sleep because of all the bills that are piling up.
But then, just as David’s final option was about to expire Matt Sinnreich came back in for the rights. This time I figured I’d sign with him, so naturally I told him I had dozens of producers chasing me and James Franco was already attached but I agreed to listen to Matt’s offer all the same, ‘just out of interest’, and then tore his hand off.
Of course there’s a clause in Hollywood contracts called turnaround where a new producer has to cover a former producer’s costs if he wants to take the project over. It didn’t exactly apply in this instance because Matt was optioning the original book, but he wanted to use certain elements of the first hot young Hollywood screenwriters’ script, so a deal was struck between David Matalon and Matt Sinnreich’s backer, a producer called Jack Rapke (Cast Away, Beowulf, Flight, The Polar Express etc) and that more or less brings us bang up to date. This new option is live. Matt is working away on it and if anything happens I’ll be sure to let you know.
I don’t know if School for Scumbags ever will get made into a movie. Plenty of books more famous than mine don’t and I’ve been on this treadmill long enough to know that a big name producer/actor/director is no guarantee of success. But this latest deal keeps the dream alive and me still fantasising that one day I’ll get to walk out of the Odeon in Leicester Square and hear the crowds muttering those immortal words that all authors dream of hearing:
“Bahh, it wasn’t as good as the book.”
School for Scumbags is available from various used booksellers or as an ebook priced £1.99 from Amazon.co.uk here