I got this question recently:
“I own the rights to a novel of great, although lesser known, historical figure. I think this person’s life would make a great movie. How can I get this novel / person’s life turned into a movie?”
Also, read this post which is about how to turn your idea / treatment / novel into a screenplay first:
How to hire a screenwriter to write your life story or great movie idea
The bottom line is that essentially everything I talk about on my blog pitching screenplays could work for you, too. Start with this post:
How to Sell Your Screenplay (in a nutshell)
You need to write up a good solid query letter and start sending it out to anyone and everyone (I also offer an email/fax blast screenplay query service which might be of use to you, too). You’ll make it clear in the query letter that you own the rights to the novel and don’t have a screenplay yet so you would like people to read the novel. If you have personal contacts that you can meet or call hit them up first and pitch them in person and see if you can get them to read the novel.
Finding a producer who’s interested in helping you with your project is going to be the kernel that gets this project going. Hopefully someone will say “yes,” they’ll option the novel from you, pay a screenwriter to write it into a screenplay, and then go raise the money for it. To say this is a long shot is an understatement. Not because your specific material isn’t good, it very well might be great, but because raising money for a film is really really really, and I mean really difficult. I wrote a post about it here: The 100% guaranteed sure fire way to get your screenplay made into a movie.
Now if you’re really serious about getting your novel turned into a movie you’re going to have to get the ball rolling yourself.
Mostly that means raising some significant start up money.
Once you have some money you’re going to need to pay a screenwriter to turn your novel into a screenplay. The more you can spend the better screenplay you’re likely to end up with. Make a list of good films that are similar to your novel. Go to IMDB and look up the writer’s name. Research them a bit and see if they’ve written a few other films that you like. Once you’ve found a few writers who you think would be suitable for your project contact the WGA (Writers Guild of America) and ask for their contact information. In most cases these writers will be WGA writers and will have their agents/managers information on file with the WGA. The WGA has minimums and to turn your novel into a complete screenplay with some rewrites is going to cost you probably close to $50K to $100K.
I’m sure you can find writers who will work a lot cheaper but then you run a greater chance of ending up with a terrible screenplay. Make sure you read this post if you’re thinking about trying to hire someone who’s much cheaper than WGA minimums: How to hire a screenwriter to write your life story or great movie idea.
If you have a budget to pay a screenwriter I would be more than willing to talk to you about writing the screenplay. But I’m certainly not the only option out there.
Once you have a screenplay you’re going go back and start submitting query letters again (and pitching to your personal contacts) and hopefully find a producer who’s now willing to help you produce your film. With a good screenplay your chances are much better than with just a novel. Hopefully you’ll find a good producer who will help you but if not you’ve got other options.
Assuming you can’t find a producer who’s willing to help you get your movie made you’re going to use some more of that start up money and hire a casting director. The casting director will help you come up with lists of possible actors who would be right for specific roles in your film. The casting director will then submit your project to these actors. On some of the independent films that I’ve worked on we’ve been able to find good casting directors for a few thousand dollars so plan on spending probably $2K – $10K for the casting director. Once again you can find casting directors by researching them on on IMDB and then trying to track them down through the CSA (Casting Society of America) website. You don’t want to go cheap on this step because a good casting director has a lot more clout with top actors’ agents, which is what you need to get your material read and considered. There is also a lot of subtle things that a good casting director can clue you in on like what actors will sell your film overseas, what actors do these types of independent films, etc. Knowing who can sell your film overseas is going to be important when and if you try and raise the money yourself so part of this stage might be contacting some distributors and trying to get a list of who will be right for your film AND who can also sell your film once it’s complete. This is not always as intuitive as you might think and an actors daily rates don’t always reflect their ability to sell the film.
What you’re really hoping for from this stage is that an actor will read the screenplay and like it so much that they’re willing to sign a letter of intent for no upfront money. What’s most likely going to happen is that some of the actors will be happy to do your film and their agents will quote you their daily and weekly rates. While not ideal, this may be useful. Actors usually won’t agree to sign a letter of intent unless you make it a “pay-or-play” deal, meaning that they get paid even if you never make your film.
But even if you don’t get some free letters of intent from actors some good work has been done. You can start to come up with a budget since you have a rough idea about how much actors will cost to do your film. You’ve also got an “in” once you do have some more money to go back to certain actors and hire them. While you probably wouldn’t want to put it in writing (i.e. in a query letter) that these actors are “attached,” if an actor has said “yes” but won’t sign a letter of intent you can certainly tell people that when you’re pitching your project in person, which can add an some legitimacy both with producers and potential investors.
So now you’ve hopefully got a few actors on board and it’s back to pitching your project. If you’ve got letters of intent than by all means mention that in your query letter. If you’ve got some verbal semi-commitments from actors then mention that to your personal contacts. Potential investors, especially people outside of the entertainment industry, are usually quite impressed with even the smallest semi-commitments.
At any time, too, when you’re pitching your project either verbally or through query letters if you’ve been able to secure some significant financing for your project you should be mentioning that. Having some significant financing in place will bring a lot of interest from producers at any stage of the project.
If you’ve completed all the steps I’ve outlined and you still haven’t found a producer willing to take your project on it’s time to knuckle down and raise the rest of the money yourself and produce the movie. You need to hire a producer to write up a complete budget (I know many producers who will be happy to help you with this step for a fairly modest sum) and go to work raising the money.
Raising the money is the tough part. If you are able to raise the money for your movie I’m more than happy to recommend a few producers who can produce your movie. Just contact me.
A couple of warnings.
Realize that at any point during this process if you do find a producer who’s willing to help you with your project it doesn’t in any way mean you’re all set. In all likelihood the producer won’t be able to raise the money for your film. So before you begin working with a producer on this project make sure you sit down and really talk with this person. You’re going to be working with this person for literally years so make sure you get along with them. Also, research their track record and see what sort of credits they actually have. If you don’t have the means to raise the money yourself then signing with a young producer without many credits might be your best chance, but realize that it’s a long shot. The only way to really keep control of this project and keep it moving forward exactly as you want it to move forward is to raise the money yourself.
There are a lot of people out there who will want to charge you money for all sorts of services. When you start sending out query letters you will get some responses from producers who will want some upfront fees to help you. Be very leery of these sorts of offers.
Over the years I’ve heard lots of stories where “companies” claim that they will raise the money for your film if you put in some initial seed money, usually in the neighborhood of $50K. These companies will have fancy business cards and seemingly will written business plans and promise you all sorts of things. They may even have some credits on IMDB that you can look up. I’ve heard of lots of people being suckered into this sort of deal but never once have I heard of anyone actually getting their film made this way.
So avoid people who ask for upfront money for anything. There will be lots of people trying to horn in on your project once it gets rolling so be careful.