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adapting a book for screen - what/how much go pay?

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Mark Palmos
adapting a book for screen - what/how much go pay?
on Jan 28, 2009 at 8:37:55 pm

Hello all,

I am a first time scriptwriter and would like some business advice. I am busy writing a screenplay based on a book and wanted to get some ideas on how much/how to pay the book's author.

The background is as follows:

The book was written in the mid 70's.
The publishing company went out of business.
The ex-owner of the publishing company says all the publishing rights are with the writer.
The book writer is very keen for his book to be developed, and he has not written since them, he is working as a doctor.

I would like, if possible, to offer him some percentage of the fees I get for writing in exchange for exclusivity for a few years. That way I will avoid spending money before making any! I was thinking that since the initiative is mine, and I would be selling the script as well as writing it, I should get 60% and the book writer 40%. Is that in the ball park, and is this kind of deal common/recommended or not?

Your advice would be much appreciated!


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Franklin McMahon
Re: adapting a book for screen - what/how much go pay?
on Jan 28, 2009 at 8:42:26 pm

Go higher on your end. It's your project idea, you'll be doing the work. The author does not have to do much and any percentage will be gravy. Focus more on conveying your passion to him for the project, get him swept up in the excitement, your excitement. He should be focused more on seeing it come to fruition (its great promotion for him) than getting a higher cut.



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Greg St. Pierre
Re: adapting a book for screen - what/how much go pay?
on Jun 13, 2009 at 7:22:24 pm

I'm also a new screenwriter, and I'm in a similar situation. The book I'm getting the option to was written in the 50's. The author is deceased, however I'm dealing with his widow through an agent. The widow is quite keen to see a film get made on the subject of the biography, as well as her late husband's work.

Anyway, it looks like this will be my deal: I pay $5,000 for a two year option with an extension for a further year at $4,000. The exercise fee of $125,000 up to a budget of six million dollars, thereafter 1.75% of the budget with a ceiling of $400,000, royalty payments in the event it becomes a Movie of the Week and spinoff payments if it is developed into a TV series. Prequels, sequels, remakes, DVD sales, etc. Both the widow (and her agent) and I should be getting some of all that if it ever makes it to the screen.

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Matthew Radcliff
Re: adapting a book for screen - what/how much go pay?
on Jan 29, 2009 at 1:07:57 am

Mark, definitely you're offering too much to the author. I just finished going through this myself so I'll list what I found to be the "standard" percentages. I should point out that the author I was working with didn't like my offer, and the project never got off the ground. So take it all with a grain of salt, and remember that there are always exceptions to every rule.

Typical fees for purchasing the rights to a book are 1-3% of the production budget. Often the production budget has not been worked out at this stage, so establish a minimum (floor) and maximum (ceiling) amount, and pay the minimum until the budget is set. Then pay the rest.

After production, it seems to be typical for the book's author to get 5% of the net profit from the movie. The option agreements that I looked at also include the right to make any sequels to or TV series based on the movie. The rates were roughly half for the first sequel, and then one-third for the second sequel. Further, the agreements included the right of first refusal to any author-written sequels to the book.

Before optioning the book, it is common to purchase the "option rights" which was essentially a deposit on the rights. You are buying the option to buy the rights at a later time when you have the money (e.g., after getting the greenlight from a studio or your independently wealthy aunt). This number varies widely, depending on how popular the book is, or how much the author wants you to have the rights. My memory is that 10% of the purchase price is a typical "down-payment." Sometimes it is the ever popular "one dollar and other good and valuable consideration," which is a way to formalize a handshake agreement. You give the author a dollar, and promise to purchase the rights later on, and in return the author promises not to sell them to anyone else.

There are a number of books at your neighborhood bookstore with info and sample documents. One is "The Independent Film Producer's Survival Guide." That's on the shelf in front of my face right now...

Good luck,
Matt Radcliff

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Mark Palmos
Re: adapting a book for screen - what/how much go pay?
on Jan 29, 2009 at 8:07:07 am

Hi Franklin and Matthew,

Thank you kindly for the responses.

I am not really in the position to be paying even the minimum of a production budget for the script up front. I dont want to pay anything unless I make something myself. I suppose this depends on what the author says and wants.

My contact who spoke to the author a few days ago said he was very excited... but he may have been excited with dollar signs in his eyes, or perhaps at the idea of someone liking his book and wanting to breathe life into it again.

Its a good idea to have some tiny token of payment up front, just to formalise the relationship. Matthew, WRT the percentages, you mention 1-3% of the production budget - but wouldn't the author be more comfortable getting some proportion of what I would get as scriptwriter? At least that way he knows my financial interest is also his.

Thanks again guys,
All the best,

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Matthew Radcliff
Re: adapting a book for screen - what/how much go pay?
on Jan 29, 2009 at 5:30:32 pm

Mark, I understand you're reluctance (and quite possibility your ability) to pay upfront. That's the same boat I was (and still am) in myself. The author I worked with was also excited, but in the end wouldn't give me the rights now in exchange for money later. I wish you better luck!

I think I mis-understood your position. Are you only planning on writing the screenplay but not making/producing the film? My answer was from the perspective of a producer (including a writer-producer) interested in adapting a novel. In that case, the producer would hire a writer to do the adaptation, or do it herself.

In the end, someone needs to buy the motion picture rights from the author. That doesn't need to be you -- there is no law (as far as I can tell) against writing a screen adaptation of a book without the author's permission or consent. Making that screnplay into a movie, or even publishing that screenplay, is when you need the rights. Whoever makes the movie needs to acquire the rights.

It may (or may not) help you sell your script if you also have the right to make the film; transfering the rights to another party were included in all of the sample option agreements I looked at. This way the producer doesn't need to negotiate with you for buying the script AND negotiate with the author for the rights to the book. In my opinion, this is where the author would be getting paid.

I've been told that producers will pay more for a script since they don't have to turn around and hire a writer. But it is always wise to be realistic --or even pessimistic-- about how big of a deal to expect for a script. That will most likely be calculated as a percentage of the production budget, with portions of the payment coming when the film is finished. Then, based on that estimate and the income tax and self-employment tax you would pay, you can decide what percent you would send back to the author.

All of that being said, to try and answer your question simply -- and this is my limit -- I wouldn't offer the author more than 10% of your deal. You may think it's too low, but it depends on how much you really want to adapt this book as opposed to something else. Plus, you can always negotiate up!


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Frank Andrews
Re: adapting a book for screen - what/how much go pay?
on Jul 24, 2009 at 6:47:02 am

I have a similar question...

I have the rights to a book with modest sales, and have a good friend writing the adaptation. He is a freshman writer who has yet to sell his work, but I believe in his talent... my question is, what would be fair compensation agreement between him and I?

I need help!!!



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Jean Benioff
Re: adapting a book for screen - what/how much go pay?
on Mar 18, 2010 at 9:20:40 am

Looks as if I've found some knowledgible peers who've traveled the road before me, let us see then if my current delema has a cure?

I have an adaptation of my hand with a budget of $200 million, with financial backing, casting and crew outlined. I have submitted my adaptation to it's literary author her agents & lawyers. Any and all responses I have recieved are of inhumane legal gargin to the order of: Strict Policies Against Unsolicited Submissions/has not, will not be read... Another from the authors lawyer went so far to say I must abandon all work and cease distribution of said adaptation to all other parties, as said works are a direct infringment upon the authors copyrights. To which the author wrote me directly stating they were in agreement with thier lawyer and I should not reply to the author directly or authors agent but take all matters up with said authors attorney...

I have no idea how to resolve this situation. I need to aquire these rights yet there is no way to make a proposal.

Any ideas, experience or resolution would be greatly appreciated.

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Shamil Erfanian
Re: adapting a book for screen - what/how much go pay?
on May 20, 2014 at 5:44:06 pm

Hi Jean,

What happened to your pursuit of rights?

It's been four years, and just wondering if anything changed for you.


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