Hollywood has been left reeling after a year of paused theatrical releases and production, an influx in streaming options, and expanding distribution models. These disruptions have prompted concern over how literary intellectual property will be optioned in the future. Though books will never go out of style, it’s worth considering how literary adaptations will find new growth in the years to come.
Zander Bauman, senior v-p of literary affairs at 20th Century Fox, opened the discussion with a question on everyone’s mind in Hollywood: "How are movie theaters going to survive?"
“We’re moving to ‘tentpole’ experiences,” Mary Pender, media rights agent at United Talent Agency, declared. Viewers, she added, are excited to go back to theaters, especially when it involves large-scale, big-budget films made to be cultural touchstone experiences. Mac Hawkins, film/TV literary consultant and founder of Pragmatic, explained how the industry has begun to see data showcasing the divide between theatrical release and streaming content. Talking about the release of Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway, in U.K. theaters on May 17, Hawkins said that the film has done well, suggesting that people are anxious to get out of the house and that “rumors of the movie theater’s demise are greatly exaggerated.”
With streaming services growing rapidly, there is a concern about platform sustainability as theaters reopen. “Movie streaming is going to continue,” predicted Angela Cheng Caplan, president and CEO of Cheng Caplan Company. “Whole libraries and backlists are being negotiated, and we’re seeing deals of a larger variety.”
This means smaller budget films that struggled in previous years are gaining new opportunities for viewership. “Just look at the year’s contenders at the Oscars,” said Erin Hennicke, director of film/TV at Franklin & Siegal Associates. “Nomadland might not have found an audience if it weren’t for streamers.” Smaller films tend to do well, and perhaps better, on streaming services, she explained. It is about who has access and where their interests lie.
“Our business is changing at a speed I’ve never seen before,” Cheng Caplan observed. The other panelists echoed her statement with claims of how everything from the structure of how deals are made to the frequency with which they are inked is increasing with a speed that is both exciting and perhaps a little alarming. “The more outlets we have, the more need for material,” noted Hennicke. “It used to be networks competing with networks, but now everybody is competing with everybody.”
Of course, the Wild West nature of the streaming wars can only last so long. “We will see some consolidation as time passes,” Hawkins said.
How does all this change affect how literary rights deals change? Cheng Caplan squashed fears of a downturn in sales and acquisitions. When the pandemic hit the States, she said, “Everyone turned to development. People realized production had to continue and focused on shifting production to parts of the world with better COVID compliance.” This also meant, the panelists explained, a lot more time for the normally overloaded actors, directors, and producers to sit down and read through potential material.
“Things have never been busier,” Hawkins said. “We’re in a market that is robust.” That means 5-10 potential projects a week for many in the business. But like with streaming services themselves, there is an expectation that things will slow down and balance out.
“It used to be easy to mark a project as a movie or TV show,” said Pender, “but now, you submit something and you need to be more flexible based on the interest level for that project.” The panelists confirmed that nowadays, deals place more importance on the "creative freedom" of the IP than its format; neither film nor TV has proven to be a standout lead in terms of increased deals, although both have benefited from streaming's insatiable hunger for content.
For authors, having a book optioned and adapted is almost always a boon in terms of exposure and potential uptick in book sales. But does a film or a series drive more sales?
Pender argues for the former. “When you have the opportunity to binge-watch something, there is this feeling that you’ve had your fill of the characters, which is different from watching a two-hour movie,” she said, once more pointing to Nomadland as an example, noting that “the book was never on the New York Times bestsellers list until the movie came out.” Hawkins agreed, adding that the act of binge-watching an entire 6 to 8 hours of television content could very well “leave people satiated with the characters, the world, and story,” potentially lessening the viewer’s likelihood in seeking out more, like buying the book.
In terms of popular genres and categories, Pender and Hennicke pointed to true crime (Making of a Murderer) and escapist fare like Bridgerton— both successful series. In terms of mediums, “animation,” Cheng Caplan added, “is pandemic proof.”
The panel was conducted on the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death, and Bauman concluded the conversation by bringing up Hollywood’s diversity issue. “It is still a work in progress,” Bauman said. “We can’t just sit and hope for the best.... Restructuring and systemic change [is necessary].”