2013 S&A Highlights: Looking For A Story For Your Next Film? Consider A Novel By A Black Author

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by Tambay A. Obenson
December 31, 2013 6:35 PM
27 Comments
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Editor's note: As 2013 comes to an end, I'll be reposting some of our highlights published during the year. Those who've already read each one can obviously skip them, or revisit if you'd like. For those who joined us later in the year, missing many of these posts from earlier in the year, they will probably be new items. Here's the 10th of many to come, originally posted in March 2013. Happy New Year to you all! 

As we continue to have conversations about black filmmakers taking creative risks, broadening the pool from which they draw their stories, as well as the genres they choose to work/play in, I thought I'd throw this into the pot as well...

It may not be an option that many of you have ever given any thought to, for one reason or another, but if you're struggling to come up with ideas for stories for your films, I'd strongly suggest looking to the deep well of literary work by black authors, begging to be adapted to the screen!

There are a wealth of untapped stories of all kinds and all genres there - more than your imagination could probably even fathom. And it may come as a surprise to you that these novels, and their authors, are far more accessible than you might realize.

I've gone through the process of optioning a novel, and was surprised at how relatively simple and even cheap the process is. Initially, I thought the authors I approached wouldn't be interested at all, since I'm not exactly a known filmmaker or producer; and also, I imagined that the option fees they'd charge me would be too rich for my pockets.

Neither turned out to be the case. Every single one of them was interested, in most cases, putting me in touch with their publicists, managers, publishers, or other representation, to crunch the details.

And each proposal was affordable - to me anyway. I'm obviously not giving names and exact figures away, because I don't think I can or should. But, suffice it to say that I'm definitely not some rich Hollywood producer. Neither am I a rich indie producer.

In short, while I have savings accumulated over the years, I'm far from wealthy. 

And I'll just say, in my experience, given all the authors I contacted, option fees ranged from $1,000 to $5,000, and higher (depending on how *hot* the author is, and how in-demand their novels are), for a 1 to 2 year option period.

In one case, I was offered a 1 year option for $2500, or an 18-month option for $4,000. And, by the way, these are exclusive options, meaning, I own the adaptation rights for the time period I paid for exclusively. So if I went with the $2,500 1-year option, I'd have one year to package my film, finance it, and be ready to go into production. Although deals vary from one author to the next. So what I'm mentioning here isn't some standard rule. And from what I discovered, some are very willing to work with you on fees. It shouldn't be too much of a surprise that they'd love to see their novels in film format (not all of them of course).

So terms can be negotiable; like I said, it really depends on the author and their representation. You might get lucky and find an author who's willing to give you film rights for a lengthy period, at a really low option fee that you can afford.

There's a lot more to optioning novels; I'm just given you a crash course, if I can even call it that. And, as I said, there's really no steadfast rule, with terms and deals varying from author to author. But you'll never know until you actually contact them. And in this age of Twitter and Facebook (I was able to find almost every author I contacted, via one of those 2 social networking sites), it's much easier to find these folks, and reach out to them.

But my overall point here is just to remind you that there is this other untapped source where you can get your stories from - a really rich, diverse source of strong, even already cinematic material, that's been virtually ignored by Hollywood, even though, on an almost daily basis, there's an announcement made that a novel has been optioned by a Hollywood studio, producer, or production company - the vast majority being by white authors, about white people. 

And it's in part because there isn't much interest in adapting novels by black authors about black people, that you'll find some black authors a lot more accessible than you might think. It's a sorry state of affairs that brings all this about, but this is where we are folks.

So consider a novel adaptation. Obviously, optioning one is just the first step; there's still a lot of work that'll need to be done before the book becomes a film, with raising money often the wall that many run into. But choose your novels carefully, considering the story and how cheap or expensive it'll be to adapt to film.

Just take that first step, and see where it goes... that's all I'm encouraging you to do.

And if you're a filmmaker whose gone through the optioning process, feel free to share your story; like I said, I'm sure each situation is different, some easier, cheaper, or more expensive than others, etc.

Good luck!

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27 Comments

  • Khalifa | January 4, 2014 7:04 PMReply

    As a huge fan of speculative fiction the books I would love to see on the big and small screens are

    N.K. Jemisin - The Inheritance trilogy, Dreamblood Duology

    Nnei Okorafor -I heard that Who Fears Death is in the process of becoming a film so yay. As for her YA books they are begging to be animated.

    Octavia Butler- you are spoiled for choice

    LA Banks- Vampire Huntress series

    Tananrive Due

  • Geneva Girl | January 3, 2014 9:45 AMReply

    I have a special interest in films geared towards younger audiences. There are many solid novels written for kids and young adults with crossover appeal. Were I a producer I'd look at which books are on summer reading lists. You'd have a built-in audience of not just kids, but parents who had to struggle through the books with their kids. Kids of all colors, for example, have had to read Bud, Not Buddy. (Sadly, The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963 was not a good movie; it lost the joy of the book.) Were I at home now, I'd go through my daughter's bookshelf and provide a list of great prospects.

  • Donella | January 2, 2014 3:15 PMReply

    Nice to see this thread again.

    I'm always glad to see Octavia Spencer work in the detective/murder mystery arena, but I sorta wish someone had optioned Barbara Neeley's Blanch on the Lam series for television rather than doing a retread of Murder She Wrote.

  • Donella | January 3, 2014 6:57 PM

    It may have been me. I'm definitely a fan of the books. I just can't stop LOL at how Blanche never misses a trick and works it out in the end.

  • Geneva Girl | January 3, 2014 9:48 AM

    Someone mentioned this series of books previously on this site. Based on the recommendation I bought them all for my mom who loved them. I'd wanted to read them myself, but she gave the books to her mom, who gave them to another daughter, who... I'll never be able to track them down now.

    Whoever recommended these books in the past, thank you! You've brought joy to a bunch of avid mystery readers.

  • Blackman | January 1, 2014 10:58 PMReply

    We as a people have some of the most PROFOUND stories to tell. Here are a few books I read.


    Black Boy - Richard Wright
    Wench -
    The Street - Ann Petry
    Manchild In The Promise Land - Clarence Brown
    I Been In Sorrow's Kitchen And Licked Out All The Pots - Susan Straight
    You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke - David Wolffe
    Flyy Girl - Omar Tyree
    The Kindred - Octavia Butler

  • Caddell Brown | January 1, 2014 12:22 PMReply

    "Freakquency" by me! A fiction with elements of the supernatural. Inspired by "the crossroads demon", based in South Louisiana. With the right script treatment it could be a perfect vehicle for actors who want to stretch their singing bone. Drama, pop stardom, daemons, Faustian deals, juke joints, etc. Lead characters of color. Novel debuts February 14th. Website: caddellbrown [dot] com.

  • Buddy Scott | September 12, 2013 2:07 PMReply

    I am a senior crime fiction author. Growing up in the Bed-Stuy area of Brooklyn N.Y. provided a lot of first hand experience and developed a creative imagination.
    I have two novels complete. Actually one is a sequel. I want to break into the Film indudtry and have been told that my writing is highly visual.

    I would like some direction.

  • Donella | March 11, 2013 12:06 PMReply

    I attempted an option. Got priced out. May the best person win.

  • onyx | March 11, 2013 10:10 AMReply

    Thanks for writing this. I'm experimenting with putting up a sci-fi serial, and if anyone wants to read the first chapter its here:
    http://wikkidsexycool.com/free-chapter-view/paranormal-and-fantasy/queensrealm/

    I'm starting to focus more on books featuring African American male protagonists, and I should have one up shortly about a 60s comic and his legendary movie star/comedic aunt. But in the meantime I thought I'd write an ebook from the perspective of a young girl growing up during the civil rights movement who forms the first interracial pop group with a blue eyed soul singer.
    An excerpt can be found here:

    http://wikkidsexycool.com/free-chapter-view/jukebox-volume-one-excerpt/

    But I also wanted to add that online web comics are another source, and there is an excellent one called World of Hurt. I hope someone takes a look at the art talent and writing skills of this brother:
    http://worldofhurtonline.com/

  • Adam Scott Thompson | March 10, 2013 7:44 PMReply

    I'll buy a ticket for any Colson Whitehead adaptation. Please and thanks.

  • Donella | March 11, 2013 12:06 PM

    Nice! Another Colson Whitehead fan. Zone One surprised me with its literary merit too.

  • Yoshi | March 9, 2013 11:00 AMReply

    I fully support this idea! I don't see why more black directors have not tried this already especially with the success of "The Color Purple." I think with more and more black authors using various styles and working in various genres the possibilities are vast. There are the novels of Ann Petry, Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney, Ernest Gaines, James Baldwin, Colson Whitehead, Chinua Achebe, Edwidge Danticat, and of course Toni Morrison to name a few. I think the adaptations of "12 Years a Slave" and "Half a Yellow Sun" will help present some models of how to put this idea into action.

  • Bill | March 8, 2013 5:46 PMReply

    Will do. Thanks for update.

  • Nadia | March 8, 2013 4:50 PMReply

    Not to be a spoiler because I think this is a great idea, but the problem I see for why black filmmakers aren't optioning novels by black authors is because WE DON'T READ as much as we should. Yeah, I said it. But it's true. Now I'm not saying making a blanket statement about all black people because it's obviously not all of us, but a lot of us rarely pick up novels, unless it's some street lit shit, to even find out whether there's a good story in it. So I'm saying we need to encourage reading first before we even talk about optioning novels.

  • Donella | March 11, 2013 12:05 PM

    CC, I read Colson Whitehead's Zone One because it was a zombie novel. I appreciated the writing because it was written as literature, not as fantastic horror. It was a good read.

  • mawon | March 10, 2013 8:59 PM

    This is a such a dumb comment. First of all, this article is targeted toward black screenwriters. To accuse them of "not reading enough" is insulting as hell. Writing screenplays requires one to be a writer first, and writers read. If you don't read, then you're probably a bad writer who'll make a shitty screenplay anyways.

    People stay taking any chance they can to put their own people down. I want the numbers that show black writers don't read. Show me the receipts. Otherwise, sit your self-hating ass down.

  • Miles Ellison | March 10, 2013 8:56 PM

    Coldest Winter Ever isn't exactly far removed from street lit.

  • Cindy | March 10, 2013 8:13 PM

    I disagree Nadia, Sister Souljah's new novel is currently in the NY Times best sellers list. It isn't that black people don't read the black filmmakers need to make movies that are going to connect with a black audience. Octavia Butler is a great science fiction writer and I would love her novel Kindred turned into a film. But how many young black people know about Octavia Butler? Someone else mentioned Edwidge Danticat, her books are extremely depressing not sure it could turn a profit. Someone like Sister Souljah she already has the black youth market and she's a bestselling author. I am very surprised The Coldest Winter Ever and none of her other best selling books have not been made into films.

  • Miles Ellison | March 9, 2013 9:52 PM

    This hits the nail on the head.

  • CC | March 8, 2013 8:56 PM

    Book reading -- print -- in general has taken a huge decline. By no mean is it exclusive to black people. From magazines, newspaper, novels; fiction and non-fiction, all writers are taking a hit. Consequently its become increasingly difficult to earn a living from writing books, or writing in general.

    That said, Rocket brought up an interesting point. If one goes to any leading African American Literature book sites, some of the most popular books have titles such as Zane's Z-Rated: Chocolate Flava 3, Love Sick by Jessica N. Watkins, What Love Feels Like by F.Y. Dawn, Street Chic, and Best Dressed Lie by Kimberly Batiste. And, the covers tell the whole story... if you know what I mean.

    But all good-by is not gone. The black literary canon has not run dry. Devil’s Wake by Steve Barnes and Tananarive Due is a good read by two renowned black writers (husband & wife). Everyone should recognize the name Colson Whitehead. He has a new one titled Zone One. And many have probably read Toni Morrison's "Home", I believe it came out in the summer of last year. So we're definitely still reading, but the landscape has changed.

    And btw, a black woman, Tracy K. Smith's "Life on Mars" won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

  • Rocket | March 8, 2013 6:25 PM

    Black fiction has increased in popularity over the years. Unfortunately, a lot of it "hood" stories or predictable "sex chronicle" type stories.

  • geoffrey thorne | March 8, 2013 3:34 PMReply

    I agree, of course, as this is my business both as a novelist and as a screenwriter.

    Here's what reviewers have said about my novel, BETTER ANGELS.

    "...unique and original..." - Web Fiction Guide

    "...not just your run-of-the-mill crime thriller..." - J'Adore Magazine

    "If you like your crime fiction delivered with a hard R rating and an affinity for Tarantino sex and violence, it's worth a look..." - The Trades

    You can check it out on amazon and, of course, look me up on IMDB.

  • Darryl | March 8, 2013 3:30 PMReply

    Good article Tambay giving filmmakers the insight on optioning a black novel, because of this article I believe you will see more black authors work getting purchased and made into a film by black independent filmmakers that didn't know it was that accessible that know they can do it now without hollywood backing because before this article they believed it was out of their price range. Keep up the good work of sharing knowledge to empower the black film community.

  • No | March 8, 2013 3:13 PMReply

    If any one cares to option my three novels, take a look at wwww.normankelley.com:

    Black Heat, The Big Mango, A Phat Death; they all feature a black female private eye: Nina Halligan.

  • MissWildfire | March 8, 2013 3:07 PMReply

    Hey this is a great topic Tambay, I didn't realize you were a filmmaker/producer. Interesting. Change the "you" to "your" in the heading (all you have to do is ask). I'd love to see more novels by black authors optioned. So many mediocre white novels are optioned, why not give some decent black novels a chance?

  • YouGuysNeedACopyEditor | March 8, 2013 3:00 PMReply

    Looking For Stories For Me Next Film?

    You guys need a copyeditor.

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