Talk to any agent shopping a manuscript in Hollywood and you'll hear the term “packaging.” Packaging—attaching actors, directors or other talent to a manuscript in order to garner interest in the material—has long been a tool book-to-film agents relied on. Now, say many agents, manuscripts often have little chance of being sold without the right package. PW talked to a number of book-to-film agents about how packaging works and why, according to some, doing it well has become trickier than ever.
Don Laventhall, at the Harold Ober agency, said packaging has always been key to making deals, but has “became really extreme” in recent years. “More than ever, getting a movie set up seems to depend on the elements attached.”
For many New York—based literary agents like Laventhall, getting attractive “elements” on board often means working with coagents on the West Coast who have the contacts and in-house clients to put a manuscript in front of the players who can draw studio backing.
“The name of the game is to attach as many salable elements to a book as possible,” said Dan Strone, CEO of Trident Media Group. Although Strone doesn't think much has changed on the packaging front, he said he does feel it's become more difficult to set up projects at studios.
Howie Sanders at UTA said this side of the business has changed along with Hollywood itself. Sanders noted that there are fewer studios and fewer producers with studio deals, therefore “fewer people willing to write big, big checks.” Still, Sanders is bullish about his business; he thinks material is always in need in Hollywood and that its worth is only going to rise.
Selling books in Hollywood is also about, to an extent, controlling information. While the fear used to be about bad coverage on a manuscript leaking, now it's often about the manuscript itself leaking. To avoid potential leaks, Strone often submits manuscripts via snail mail only. But even this is becoming harder to do, he said, with so many editors reading material on e-readers. “There are certain publishers dependent on [Sony] readers and Kindles so it's becoming more and more desirable to send stuff on e-mail. But doing so also makes it a lot easier for it to leak out.”
Nick Harris at the RWSH agency said having material slip out can go either way. “Sometimes I'll want something out there because it gets people all excited and it creates buzz. I know there's value in buzz.” On the flip side, he said, a manuscript can receive negative feedback before it's even out of the gates. “If you're unsure and [a manuscript] slips and the marketplace decides for you, then it does become hard to control.”
But Patricia Burke, who scouted books for Paramount before joining Inkwell Management, said leaks rarely ruin deals. “Holding back bad material doesn't make it better; it's a flawed strategy,” she said. “It may create an appetite when the material is on submission, but no one options a bad book just because they got it first.” Who sees what and when, Burke added, is often a game of smoke and mirrors, which is, after all, what people in Hollywood are hired to create. “The perception of being first is what counts, and that's what's up to the agent.”