Getting Your Book Onto the Screen… with Charles Harris
As an author, you’ve probably thought that your book might translate well onto the screen. Maybe it would make a great TV series or a Hollywood movie or even a documentary. Taking your masterpiece from manuscript to movie doesn’t have to be a pipe dream: some of the greatest movies in history – All the President’s Men, Dead Man Walking, Apocalypse Now, The Pianist and even The Sound of Music, for example – were based on works of nonfiction. But how do you get your nonfiction (or fiction) book onto the screen? Author and filmmaker Charles Harris has some advice.
Charles is an award-winning filmmaker whose work includes the movie Paradise Grove and the BBC2 satirical documentary series Sex, Drugs and Dinner. He’s an author of both fiction and nonfiction: his nonfiction works include the bestsellers Screenwriting: A Complete Teach Yourself Creative Writing Course and Jaws in Space: Powerful Pitching for Film and TV. He’s also co-founder of the screenwriter’s workshop Euroscript. Find Charles by visiting his website or his Amazon Author Page.
Listen to our full interview with Charles on The Empowered Author Podcast right here:
Identifying your market
To make the leap from manuscript to movie, the first piece of advice from Charles is to work out where in the market you fit – if indeed you do fit. If you’ve done a good job of identifying who your reader is, this shouldn’t be too difficult to do.
According to Charles, TV and movie audiences can be grouped into four categories, excluding the market for children. In ascending order of how difficult they are to get to, they are:
- Men between 14 and 24: Teenaged and young men are the easiest TV and movie audience to reach. They love a big blockbuster full of action and buxom beauties. They go to the movie theatres when they can or they’ll get their friends together for a movie night.
- Women between 14 and 24: Teenaged and young women are a little more discerning in the TV shows and movies they choose to watch. They love going to the movie theatres too, usually with their friends or boyfriends.
- Men over 25: Men over 25 become more difficult to please: they think more carefully about how they spend their money because going to the movies involves more planning. So, they won’t automatically go see the latest blockbuster but will first read the reviews.
- Women over 25: Like men over 25, women over 25 are much more discerning in what they go to see because they’re more careful with their money. They’re the most difficult audience to please because often, they don’t even get swayed by the reviews.
What kind of books become TV series or movies?
Charles believes that when it comes to books that have made it onto the screen, the common denominator is that they sold well. If your book hasn’t been selling well, it’ll be more difficult to make the jump from manuscript to movie or TV series.
However, if your book isn’t a bestseller, this doesn’t mean that there’s no chance you’ll convince a production studio to turn it into a TV series or movie. In fact, often the movie will greatly boost sales of the book, as happened with Margot Lee Shetterly’s account of the black female mathematicians who were instrumental in helping NASA enter the space race, Hidden Figures: sales of the book soared once the movie was released.
Maybe the hook of the story wasn’t right for a book but really resonates with TV and movie audiences. Or you didn’t market your book well. Or the zeitgeist has changed and now is exactly the right time for audiences to finally embrace that story that you published five years ago already.
What’s the process for getting your book onto the screen?
Once you’ve decided to try and make your manuscript to movie (or TV) pitch, you need to identify your “why”. This will help keep you motivated throughout what can be a gruelling process. As Charles says, there are lots of ups and downs: while you’ll need a skin just thin enough so that you’ll listen to constructive criticism, it should also be thick enough to keep on going in the face of rejection.
Know your “why”
Knowing what your “why” is also helps you to refine your pitch. Especially with documentaries, producers and audiences alike want to know not only the story but the story of you telling the story: what it is that has driven you to bring the story to the screen.
Write your proposal
When you start pitching your movie idea, you’ll need some kind of proposal: a synopsis of how you’re going to approach the movie, who your audience is and what you’re going to do. Part of that proposal is your “why” as well.
Create a video trailer
Normally, for documentaries you need a short video trailer rather than a script when pitching your idea. For fiction, you normally need a script. If you have a book, however, the script becomes less necessary: the production studio may get a professional screenwriter to write the script for you.
Write a great logline
To pitch your manuscript to movie idea, you need a logline: basically a sentence that summarizes the entire movie. The logline should contain the following:
- Genre: It helps to start with genre because genre is the most important thing. When you’ve told the person the genre, you’ve told them what emotion to listen to and whether it’s suitable for them.
- Who it’s about: the protagonist. Here you need to focus on:
- What the protagonist is trying to do
- What their flaw is
- What their main goal is
- A sense of where the story leads.
How do you find people to pitch to?
The easy way to find people to pitch your idea to is to do an online search of agents and producers. Look at productions similar to what you have in mind and see who made them.
The right people often go to industry-related markets and festivals, which are great places to meet them face to face and ask about making an appointment.
What’s your experience?
If you’ve tried pitching your manuscript to producers, how’d it go? What did you learn? Let us know in the comments.