Pitching a Book for Film Rights: What Should You Expect?

by | Apr 4, 2023 | Being in Business as an Author

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A lot of authors ask me about pitching a book for film rights, and I always bristle at this topic.

Why? Because more often than not it’s jumping the gun. Book reviewers, online influencers, media, and especially film studios, want a sure thing. And most authors don’t have a platform to back up those kinds of claims.

And when I say platform I essentially mean online street cred! A great cover, hundreds of reviews, hitting bestseller lists, online chatter from influencers with massive followings – this is when film studios might start to take notice.

Pitching a book for film rights can be a part of your journey at some point, but if you approach it as if it’s a way to cut the line on the road to real success, you’re going to be greatly disappointed.

And even when you’re ready to take that next step, how do you know where to start or who to trust?

Fortunately, Anne R Allen has already written an excellent piece on this aspect of the industry, so there’s no reason for me to reinvent the wheel.

If you’ve ever dreamed of pitching a book for film rights, or maybe you hadn’t even considered it until an email showed up in your inbox seeming too good to be true, the below post from Anne is absolutely worth a read, and Anne’s blog and social media are all worth a follow!

They’re (NOT) Gonna Put you in the Movies: Beware Book-to-Film Scams

For the past couple of years, streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc. have been gobbling up literary properties to make into films and TV series. So I guess it was inevitable that scammers would find a way to exploit the phenomenon.

Here’s a 2019 article from Publishers Weekly about the Netflix “book feeding frenzy.” 

If you were a scammer, how could you resist? All you have to do is get a list of indie authors and their email addresses or phone numbers (thanks, Facebook!) Then pick up the phone and start calling. “Hey there, author. I’m a film scout for Netflix and this is your lucky day. For (a hefty fee) I’ll get your book in front of some Netflix honchos and…” Or if they’re lazy, they can just send an email.

You can fill in the rest. It’s all flim-flam. The scammers don’t know any Netflix honchos. And the author who falls for their lies is out scads of money.

The real Netflix deals are negotiated by the author’s agent. If you don’t have an agent, the chances of real film scouts contacting you are pretty slim.

But we always dream, don’t we? We’re sure ours will be the book that breaks the barrier and emerges as an Emmy-winning series. Sigh. Writers always dream — and that’s why these Hollywood book-to-film scams have been around since the dawn of the Kindle revolution.  The “feeding frenzy” of streaming services during the Covid lockdown days gave the scammers a whole new batch of material to make their lies more convincing.

Classic Book-to-Film Scams

The classic Hollywood book-to-film scam went like this: a “film scout” contacted an indie or unagented author, usually by phone, and said how much they loved his book. They were sure it would make a great film for (Spielberg, James Cameron, Spike Lee, or whoever was the big name du jour.)

The author just had to pay (a huge amount of money) for one of their stable of writers to create a screenplay or a treatment from the book.

But here’s the thing: paying somebody to write a screenplay based on your book “on spec”— that is, without a contract with an actual filmmaker — only gets you a spec script, not a film deal.

Every restaurant server and parking lot attendant in Southern California has a spec script. The scripts novelists paid this outfit to write didn’t have any more chance of getting a studio contract than the spec script written by the neighborhood barista.

Later, the notorious publishing scammers at Author Solutions industrialized the Hollywood book-to-film scam. Many of their imprints from Archway to Xlibris offered a pricey “Hollywood option” in their already exorbitant contract. Their high-pressure sales team promised to get a screenwriter to adapt your book for the screen and put it in a “Hollywood database” where it would be seen by all the big producers and directors. All for only $10,000 or so.

Of course the database was bogus and the adaptation was worthless.

For more on the classic Hollywood book-to-film scams, Intellectual Property attorney Helen Sedwick has some advice for authors.

The New Netflix Book-to-Film Scams

Recently I’ve heard from a number of authors who have been taken to the cleaners by a new, more polished version of the old Hollywood scam. But it now piggy-backs on the “Netflix feeding frenzy” of the pandemic years.

The Better Business Bureau of New York has posted some hair-raising stories, all pretty similar to what I’ve heard from writers on social media. It’s a convincing scam, and a lot of authors are falling for it.

Like the classic Hollywood book-to-film scam, this is usually initiated by a cold-call from somebody with excellent English skills who sounds very professional.

They offer to have one of their writers adapt the author’s book for the screen with a full screenplay or a “treatment” — for a hefty fee. Then, they promise, they will show it to their eagerly waiting contacts at streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO, etc. And there’s a money-back guarantee.

As soon as the writer pays them, they pressure him for more money. They need thousands more for murky “license fees” and “international taxes.” They need it tomorrow, or the deal will fall through.

Once the author gets fed up with hemorrhaging money and says he’s had enough, the scammer gets verbally abusive. It’s all the author’s fault and he could have had a deal if he hadn’t screwed it up.

Then the scammer disappears.

Good luck trying to collect on that money-back guarantee.

Many Book-to-Film Scams are the Spawn of Author Solutions

The slickest of the new book-to-screen scam operations comes from a company in the Philippines. (Probably a spawn of Author Solutions, which was headquartered there, and trained 100s of scammers to feed off the dreams of newbie writers.) It has a clever cover story left over from their last con, the pay-to-play magazine interview scam.

These people now appear to run their fairly legitimate literary magazine as a front. This real — if not widely circulated — magazine publishes fiction and poetry by emerging writers. The copy may or may not be screened or edited. I haven’t seen any of the content, but the cover looks fairly convincing. And it’s a great way to reel in new, naïve writers.

When an author gets a call from a “film scout” or “film agent” working for the magazine, he might be a bit skeptical. Especially since this scout says Netflix is interested in his indie novel that hasn’t sold a copy since 2015. But the author goes to check out the website, and…there it is: a polished, professional looking operation, with words spelled right and everything.

Hey, our author thinks, maybe these folks are for real.

Dealing With Book-to-Film Scams is Playing Calvinball

So, okay, our author agrees to talk further with one of this magazine’s reps. That’s when they sink in the hooks. They offer to convert the book to a screenplay for $15,000, or provide a treatment for a mere $5000. And the treatment will probably do the trick. Such a bargain!

And — get this! There’s a money-back guarantee! If they don’t sell his book rights to a streaming service, our author gets his money back in full. His rep Zack was very firm about that. The author knows Zack really cares about the book and is on his side. Such a nice, friendly guy.

The author may hear some encouraging noises from Zack over the next few months. Then — da-da! Netflix Canada or New Zealand is interested. He just has to pay another $3000-$5000 for “film licensing” and “international fees” in those countries.

If the author balks at the price, Zack pressures him relentlessly. Then finally drops him. And no, there’s no money back, because the author didn’t follow “the rules.” Their rules are like Calvinball — they make them up as they go along.

Good luck for the author trying to find anybody who will talk to him after he’s been dropped. “Zack” doesn’t exist. Nobody at the company has heard of him or the author. And there isn’t even a Netflix New Zealand.

But hey, they’ve got a great offer from HBO South Africa. If the author only pays another $4000, they can get his book in front of some very big people at HBO South Africa. There’s a money-back guarantee!

And so it goes…

What Can You Do if You’ve been a Victim of a Hollywood Book-to-Film Scam?

Alas, there’s not much you can do once you’ve actually parted with your cash. When a company is overseas, it’s tough for US law enforcement to prosecute them. From what I’ve gleaned from the comments at the Better Business Bureau, it seems one or two people have got partial refunds by making a huge fuss, so it might be worth trying. But hiring a lawyer will cost more than you’ll get out of the scammers. Plus you’ll get lots of insults and verbal abuse along with every penny.

What you can do is stop feeding them. Block their phone number and email address and refuse to speak to them. If you buy into any part of their lies, they will think they still own you and keep hammering you for more money.

They know a cash cow when they see one, and you’re it. If you’ve fallen for them once, they figure you will again.

I know writers who were harassed by high pressure salesmen from Author Solutions for years after they fell for one of their scams. The salespeople phone you at work, at home, at your mom’s, and follow you relentlessly, claiming all your dreams will come true if you just give them a few thousand dollars more.

Don’t believe it! Cut your losses and run.

And remember, never part with a penny in any writing project before you run the name of the company by Writer Beware and Alli’s Watchdog Desk. 

Besides, Netflix isn’t Buying Anymore

And on a final note, do be aware the Netflix feeding frenzy has died down. Netflix had rapid growth during the pandemic when everybody was home watching TV. But now people are out and about, Netflix stock is way down and they’re laying off workers.

The scammers will have to find a new way to con unsuspecting authors. And I’m sure they will.

Speaking of New Scams: Beware the Barrage of New Book Reviewers

If, like me, you’re suddenly getting a huge amount of spam from chatty “book reviewers” who are dying to review your book on Amazon for a fee, remember that buying Amazon reviews is a major no-no that can get you kicked off Amazon FOR LIFE.

Do not fall for these people. (Or person. Every email has a different name for the “sender” but they all claim to have exactly 57,201 followers.) If you pay, and the review is posted on Amazon, you’re the one who gets penalized, not the scammer. You’re supposed to know better.

A Final Caveat

I am not mentioning the names of any of these scammers aside from Author Solutions, who are well known. The newer book-to-film scams are still very active, and they may try to scare me off with a lawsuit. The suits have no merit, but they can waste a lot of my time. They can even sue me for something a commenter says on this blog. Even though that’s against US law, they’ll sue me in another country. I’ve just been through that. Not fun.

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