Bringing Your IP to Film

Every few months I normally have a producer or three who will call inquiring about film rights for one of my books, usually the Runelords series. It has been under option with one producer or another now for fifteen years. But by far the most interest came up recently when Jess Bezos at Amazon announced that he wanted the next “Game of Thrones” television series.

Suddenly I had producers calling repeatedly from everywhere—not just Hollywood, but Europe and China, too, and the interest was intense. Everyone was looking for a big fantasy franchise that could be put to film. I’m sure that other fantasy writers were getting the same interest.

Normally, that’s not the case. There is a good reason why we don’t get a lot of calls. Bringing a big fantasy like the Runelords to film is an expensive proposition, what with the costs for special effects, character design, sets, and of course creature design. Throw in the costs of a battle scene or two, and that gets in the way.

That of course is the downside of writing alternate-world fantasy.

So there was a little excitement, and I wondered what Amazon might decide on. There are several good fantasy franchises that they could have chosen. But of course they decided to make a Lord of the Rings television series.


Now, let me clarify something: I’m a huge LOTR fan. But I felt disappointed, as many other fantasy fans did. Lord of the Rings made a great series of movies and won a lot of awards and can make a fine television series. But it was chosen because it was a safe, no-brainer choice. It is one of the world’s two biggest fantasy franchises. There are a lot of fans, and so long as Amazon spends a huge amount of money, they’ll get a lot of eyes.

But there are a couple of problems with it. The first one is that fantasy works because it arouses a sense of WONDER. Once you’ve watched Lord of the Rings on film, you won’t be getting a strong sense of wonder by watching the same thing again, and again, and again. A television series will inevitably invite comparison to the award-winning films, and in some cases it might win. After all, the director, actors, and other artists know how high the bar has been set. But the viewer won’t be feeling that sense of wonder as they watch. Instead, I fear that they will be feeling a sense of nostalgia, and that wears thin pretty quickly.

I do have hopes for the series. Apparently they’re going to try to make a prequel, perhaps based in part on the Silmarillion. One can only hope that they do a great job.

Now, why do I bring all of this up in a writing column? It’s simple. As a novelist, you will find that producers will show interest in your work, but I would like to warn you not to get too excited.

The reason is this: in Hollywood, the biggest IP (intellectual property) is the one most likely to get made into a film. It’s the safest bet that investors can make. Because of this, we will see more Batman and Spiderman and Star Wars for the next fifty years while other original works get ignored.

And of course, each time that one of these gets made into a movie, a videogame, or a television series, then it grows in size as an IP until other original works just can’t compete. You with your three million fans just aren’t as attractive as a property that has three hundred million fans.

Just because you write a great story, it doesn’t mean that Hollywood will come knocking on your door. A couple of years ago, one producer was pitching my Runelords to a major studio exec and told him, “This is an amazing story!” At the time, a Lego movie was huge, and the exec replied, “I don’t need a great effing story, I want a huge IP. Bring me Lincoln Logs or something.”

So where does that leave us as authors? It means that if you’re writing fantasy where you create entire new worlds, you really are wasting your time in Hollywood unless you build your IP. You have to go out and sell books to enough readers for Hollywood to take notice. How many readers do you need?

Millions is nice. About ten million is probably the minimum. An audience that size could probably support a film with a modest $100 million budget, because each reader that you have suggests that you have a fan who would be eager to see a movie. The more readers you get, the better. When Harry Potter came out, it sold tens of millions of books in 1999, and got a movie deal almost immediately. The same happened with Twilight.

However, the rules that apply to novels don’t apply to comic books. Years ago I helped create a little comic book that hit #3 on the comics bestseller list. We only had to sell 30,000 copies to do that—coming in just behind Superman and Batman for the month. So in comic books, you can have relatively low sales numbers, but because you’re dealing with a visual medium, the comic translates to film much easier. Hence, we get films based on comics like Hellboy and The Mask—neither of which sold millions of copies.

Given all of this, as a fantasy author, you typically need to work for years building your franchise, enlarging your IP, working to get greater visibility, winning awards, and so on, before you can generate the interest needed to get your work translated to film.

Which is all fine by me. I love writing. In fact, I’m very excited. I get to spend the next two months writing my next Runelords novel!


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