Hollywood's Lost IP Horror Stories
➕ Checking in on 'Spare', analyzing 2022's book deals, the ethics of true-story adaptations
Welcome to the Optionist. Thanks for reading. I wanted to catch you up on a few things today — checking in on Spare, the ethics of adapting true stories and a rundown on what book deals in 2022 tell us about the market. But first, I’d like to start with an IP horror story that should be a cautionary tale for any writer…
It started with a tweet from writer/producer Glen Mazzara (The Shield, The Walking Dead) that caught my attention:
Whoa. How often does this happen? Clearly from the replies to this one tweet, a lot more often than I would've thought. (I know, people in Hollywood misrepresenting things… yada, yada, yada.)
I reached out to some people on this thread to see if they wanted to expand on what happened to them, but no one wanted to say more. I asked a few writer friends about it and no one was totally surprised. Some of the stories I heard ranged from simple misjudgments (getting a writer started while rights were being negotiated, only to have to fold the project when the deal fell through a week later) to situations similar to Glen’s (a writers room up and running for several months, on an adaptation of a beloved sci-fi novel, to which the producers didn't have the rights they thought they did).
The reasons why this happens appear varied. Sometimes incompetence; sometimes miscommunication between parts of a company; sometimes outright shadiness. Whatever the reason, the writers and showrunners, even one as successful as Glen, bear the brunt. Development takes a lot of time. Writers get only so many shots. Something with pre-tested IP always seem particularly attractive because the barriers to getting a yes from a studio or network are lower, so failures over reasons like this are an especially bitter pill.
Glen's experience can be a learning lesson for writers, especially those farther down the food chain, to go into every project with eyes wide open, and where possible, try to find out as much information as possible about the rights. Not so easy, I know, in the labyrinth world of lawyers and business affairs.
I'll dig into why IP blunders have become more common later in the year.
I thought I'd follow up my pre-publication look at the economics of Prince Harry’s Spare with a quick check on where things stand with the international smash.
As you may know, Nielsen Bookscan tracked 630K print book sales in the first week and Penguin Random House announced 3.2M total unit sales worldwide across all formats (print, ebook and audio). We now have some indications of second-week sales via Bookscan which reported 195K print sales. Of course, that's a big drop (I told you books and movies were looking alike), but not surprising.
Still, put Harry's sales in context to the rest of the bestseller list this week and you can see just what a juggernaut Spare is, despite some outlets like the Daily Mail and others trying to undermine that idea.
The second best-selling book of the week (the paperback version of Colleen Hoover's It Starts With Us) moved 48K print copies.
The best-selling new hardcover novel (The Cabinet of Dr. Leng by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child) sold 22K copies.
The best-selling new non-fiction book (after Spare), music producer Rick Rubin's The Creative ACT, sold 36K copies.
Compared to other memoirs, Spare’s comps aren’t other recent celebrity books like Matthew McConaughey’s 2020 Greenlights (1.2M print sales in the U.S. to date, per Bookscan), but something like Michelle Obama’s Becoming, which moved 1.4M units worldwide in its first week on sale in 2018, on the way to a lifetime total (to date) topping 14 million.
Extrapolating from the print numbers, we can estimate that total sales for Spare are probably over 4.3M at this point, comfortably above what I thought it would take for PRH to cover its $20M advance to Harry. Now, I've heard from people with knowledge of the deal that the actual number was possibly as much as $40M for the whole three- or four-book deal. So, if the higher number is accurate, PRH would be right around covering the whole advance on just this first book right now and by the time the whole deal is done, PRH will almost assuredly have made good money publishing Harry’s memoir.
One of the certainties of Spare's success is that we'll get a Meghan Markle memoir as one of the three remaining books in this deal. There's an appetite for it. From Harry and Meghan's point of view, Spare was a success in getting out their side of the Windsor family feud. Let's face it, the Sussexes have one thing to sell — their own story — and they’re gonna milk it for as long as they can.
Another winner here is ghostwriter JR Moehringer. The consensus of the reviews is that the book is, if nothing else, a great read (here, here and here). The success of the book and the praise for the writing has elevated his public profile. I think it could make him the kind of brand that sells memoirs simply because his name is attached (akin to William Novak in the ’80s and ‘90s). He's going to be the in-demand ghostwriter for the foreseeable future.
Takeaway: Mo’ money for PRH. Mo’ Harry and Meghan for us.
The Ethics of “True”
I talked about adapting true stories and avoiding defaming real people with the hosts of the IP podcast the Briefing. But I thought this NYT story (“Based on a True Story’ (Except the Parts That Aren’t”) was worth reading as well because it explores the ethical considerations; things that might be legally okay but not right. In particular, the story explores what film and TV makers owe the real people portrayed on screen and viewers.
Take an unsympathetic figure like Central Park Five prosecutor Linda Fairstein, who sued Ava DuVernay and the makers of When They See Us. A judge dismissed most of her claims as either banal (showing her as the author of a press release) or subjective (how the five young defendants saw Fairstein). But Judge Kevin Castel let five claims go forward, including scenes implying that Fairstein withheld DNA evidence or said she "coerced" the confession.
It doesn’t have to rise to the level of a legal claim for some public figures to feel bruised by how they were portrayed — Jerry West complained strenuously that Winning Time exaggerated his temper in a way that damaged his public image.
Even real figures who participated in adaptations concede the experience can be tough, says Zelda Perkins, the Harvey Weinstein assistant who consulted on She Said, "Actually having gone through it with being treated fairly respectfully, I cannot even imagine the damage it must cause to people who weren’t collaborated with.” Producer Brad Simpson (American Crime Story) sympathizes with real people in the story, but notes that creatives don't have a legal obligation to get approval (or even consult): “That’s not the way the law works [and] that’s not the way these shows get made or written," adding that creators primary goal is making entertaining shows.
It’s a tricky balancing act, and Simpson's low bar, for me, isn't enough. So much of the marketing of these stories and why people make them is the true story hook. If you're gonna sell a show or film that way, I’d suggest a higher obligation than the legal minimum, especially when portraying people as villainous or in an unflattering light (outside of those legally convicted in court). Of course, creatives are going to have a point of view and some people are going to come off as bad through that lens, but many of these problems arise because creatives take shortcuts to get to entertaining rather than struggling with how to make the facts entertaining.
The NYT story pairs well with this Atlantic piece (“We’ve Lost the Plot”), which pulls back the lens even farther to consider how the line between fiction and reality has blurred everywhere in American life, from social media to deep fakes, to the incipient metaverse. The piece hones in on a core contradiction of our current moment: "We have never been able to share so much of ourselves. And, as study after study has shown, we have never felt more alone." This is more a think piece than offering something actionable (hey, it's The Atlantic), but it's worth a read to consider how this shapes our fictional world. Should we be expected to side-scroll shows like The Crown or Gaslit to fact check as we watch?
Takeaway: The parallel trends of real-life stories fueling ever more films and TV shows will further confuse fact and fiction.
The Year in Deals
Publisher's Lunch did an analysis of 2022 in book deals. It's behind a paywall but I thought I'd flag a few of the big points that were interesting for those of you who aren’t subscribers:
After a record 2021, the overall number of deals were down slightly.
Ax murderers, space aliens and barbarians rocked: Both sci-fi and horror saw big jumps. (It is interesting to note parallels between publishing and screen horror right now as both are on a roll.)
Angst-ridden 15-year-old heartthrobs — sorry you had such a crap year: YA sales dropped a bit more than 10 percent.
In tough times, go for the shiny new thing: Debut fiction was also up (not surprising if you've read my interview with book scholar Laura McGrath).