Writing a Bestselling Series, Chapter 18: Going to Hollywood

Among novelists, there is a saying: Don’t go to Hollywood.  It seems to be something of a graveyard where authors go to die.  But every year, a few young novelists go to seek their fortune there—and most are never heard from again

Part of the problem is that most of the authors go to Hollywood in the hopes of becoming screenwriters, but learning to write in a new medium is hard, and the truth is that very few novelists ever gain any type of prominence.  Still, there are some who do all right.

Personally, as a writer, I’ve always been more interested in writing novels than screenplays, but in the late 1990s, I began going to the Sundance Film Festival.  It was easy, after all, since I lived right at the mouth of the Provo Canyon and it was just a short drive.

I found that I enjoyed meeting new directors, screenwriters, and producers.  They were very much like young writers that I knew in my writing group—with the same excitement and determination.  So I went to a number of screenings and decided to learn a bit about filmmaking, simply by doing it.  I invited some young writers and filmmakers to join me, and we put together some ideas for short films with the idea of making them and entering a couple into film festivals.  (For those who know Dan Wells of I Am Not a Serial Killer fame, Dan worked with me and proved himself to be extremely talented.)

We didn’t get far, though.  We were shooting our first short when a friend told me about a seminar for those who wanted to learn how to produce films, so I signed up.  In the workshop, I met John Lee, who owned a company that did greenlighting analysis for producers and directors in Hollywood.  I spoke to John about my own ideas in audience analysis, and it turned out that our methods meshed pretty well, so John invited me to come work with him, with the idea of getting my novels translated to film.  So I considered it, but kept working on my novels.

However, just a few weeks later, John was contacted by a film producer who had worked on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  He had some investors in Hollywood who wanted to meet some American filmmakers, and they were searching for someone who might want to partner on a major collaboration.  I was invited to China with several other producers, a film bonding agent, and a special effects director.

I don’t want to get into what happened next for a number of reasons.  In part, it’s because I plan to write a novel that deals with the bizarre experience.  But let’s just say that I toured China more than once, met with numerous filmmakers, and quickly received an offer of $65 million to make a film in China—an offer that I turned down.

Instead I returned to the US, and a few weeks later was offered a million dollars to begin pre-production on a Runelords movie, and quickly found more investors who offered another million.  I began working as a film producer (rather than a writer), where I consulted screenwriters, directors, special-effects artists, creature and costume designers, and so on.  I also worked as a greenlighting analyst, and took meetings with high-level studio execs.

Within a few months our group lined up a number of investors from foreign countries—places like Japan, Germany, India, Taiwan, Italy, Russia, and others, so that we could fund the film, and got promises of about 80 percent of our funding goal of $85 million.  We also set up a joint distribution deal with Franchise Studios and Warner Brothers to have the film released here in the US..

I suppose that I should explain here that before you ever make a major film, you line up that talent, get the director, some of the top cast, the line producer, gain all of the funding, and then begin production.  You don’t spend millions making a movie and then just hope to fund the film.

So we got really close—before it all fell apart.  The reason?  We were going to work with Franchise Studios to make their largest film ever, but it turned out that they were involved with defrauding German investors.  They got caught and were sued in the largest successful lawsuit in Hollywood’s history, for $100 million.  Franchise went under, and all of the films that they were making were dropped.

So after more than two years of working my tail off, I pretty much came up empty. Yes, there was still a lot of interest in the film by investors, but not from distributors

Still, my experiences working as a greenlighting analyst and as a producer were invaluable.  There are some things that universities just can’t teach you.

I never did fall into the trap of trying to become a full-time screenwriter.  Yes, I did write some screenplays.  But while I enjoy the medium, much as I enjoy making videogames, I’m more interested in writing novels.  In fact, since leaving I have been offered jobs to work as a producer several times, and was even offered a job as president of a small movie company.  I said “No thanks,” much as I did when offered a position as the vice president of a videogame company.

So what did I learn in Hollywood?  I learned a bit about funding movies—how to successfully land deals with investors around the world.  I learned a lot about greenlighting films and how to translate books to film.  But perhaps the most valuable experiences came with dealing with wealthy investors and with other producers and business partners.

Does that kind of experience translate to books?  You bet.

For example, the information that I gained on audience analysis for films helps in analyzing novels to determine whether they can become bestsellers.

But there are other areas where that experience has been helpful.  Your publisher is simply another investor, and you need to be able to gauge his character, expectations, and capabilities as you choose a publisher wisely.

For example, there are a lot of small publishers starting up around the world.  You have to look at them honestly and ask, “What can this person/company really offer me?” “Have they ever launched a bestselling novel? If so, how many times?” “Do they have a dedicated fund for marketing my book?” “Do they have a marketing budget?” “Is this publisher honest, or will they simply sell the hell out of my novel and then pocket the money?”—and so on.

When you create any intellectual property, you have to first create the product—whether it be a novel, a videogame, or a film.

As a novelist this might mean toiling alone in your office for months on end.  Or you might have a co-author or an artist with you.   In some cases, you might even have a writing team working with you. The question becomes, are you as an artist up to the challenge of producing the book on time and at top quality?  Are you physically capable of handling exhausting nights? Do you feel emotionally ready to take on a job while juggling the stress of raising a family or perhaps coping with the lingering grief of the death of a loved one? Are you intellectually and artistically ready—so that you have a clear vision for what you are trying to create?

The answer to these questions becomes increasing complex as you expand into different mediums.  With a videogame company you might have dozens or even hundreds of people working on a project, and you need to ask yourself if the company has the artistic depth and the programming expertise to make an excellent game.  Does the team have top managers who can correctly lead the production teams, spotting problems early and making adjustments? And just how trustworthy is the company’s president and top officials.

As we get into films, it typically takes as many as five or six hundred people to create a great movie—a team that includes producers, funding sources, directors, designers, actors, filmographers, sound designers, SFX and stunt crews, and a huge cast of support personnel.  Managing that can become a headache.  My spreadsheet alone for producing a movie enumerates hundreds of tasks that can take years to complete.

Once you create any intellectual property (IP), you then have to market and sell it effectively on a global scale.  If you don’t know it, you as an author are a global entertainer, selling subrights for your property to publishers around the world.

So let’s just say that in Hollywood, I got an education that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else, and I’m grateful for that.


Next week I’ll be teaching a workshop in Sydney, Australia. There are still some spots available if you would like to come. You can find everything you need to know right here.

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