Cori McCarthy is the author of four novels for young readers: The Color of Rain (Running Press, 2013), Breaking Sky (Sourcebooks, 2015), You Were Here (Sourcebooks, 2016), and the forthcoming Now a Major Motion Picture (Sourcebooks, 2017). I interviewed McCarthy to discuss ebook marketing and the transition of a book into a movie.
This is part two of a two-part article. Read part one here.
BB: Cori, your novel Breaking Sky has been optioned by Sony Pictures. Tell us how this came about.
CM: The experience was almost the complete opposite of getting a book deal. I received some really great trade reviews on Breaking Sky before it came out. My agent called one day to say someone at Sony Pictures was interested in optioning it. I said, “Whoa, how did they even read it? It hasn’t even come out yet.”
BB: So the Sony Pictures person contacted your agent out of the blue?
CM: Yes, exactly. Someone through some channel–probably on NetGalley—found my book. When I say that it was the opposite of getting a book deal—book deals take months, if not longer. So I had that one phone call, and I will be honest, I have gotten phone calls like this before. Somebody was interested in Breaking Sky for, like, two days. Somebody was interested in The Color of Rain one time. I didn’t really think much of it, but this time the offer was serious. My publishing agent put me in touch with a film agent and I spoke with him on the phone and within a few days we had an offer from Sony. It was very, very swift and exciting, and the announcement came out at the same time as the book released. That helped the book sales.
BB: What is your involvement in the screenplay?
CM: The producers asked me how involved I would like to be. I told them I want them to make a true adaptation. I want them to take the parts they think will be cinematic and go with that.
BB: A lot of authors have strong ideas about how they want filmmakers to portray their characters.
CM: There are people who write screenplays for a living, and they are so very good at it. I would like to see what the screenwriter turns my story into. I think that readers are the most disappointed in film adaptations when they are so close to the book, but somehow don’t feel as intimate.
I got a Bachelor’s degree in poetry and after I graduated, I realized that being a poet wasn’t the right career, so I got a post-graduate certificate in screenwriting from UCLA. I wrote two feature-length screenplays, and what I learned is that I don’t like writing screenplays.
BB: What didn’t you like about it?
CM: I don’t like how few words you are allowed to have. To write a good screenplay, you are not directing the actors, you are not framing the shot—all of these things that you get to do as a fiction author. A screenwriter is just writing down action, beat and dialogue. The setting and the other storytelling elements are up to the creative collaboration of filmmaking. It’s quite beautiful, but it didn’t work with my style of writing. A screenwriter almost has to step away from the story and look at it in a different way so that you can create a movie that stands apart. As someone with a screenwriting degree, I feel uniquely qualified to say to Sony, “I think you should hire a screenwriter.”
BB: Financially, how does the movie deal work?
CM: The rights to your book are either purchased or leased. Right now, Sony Pictures is leasing the rights to my book for two years and when that time period expires, they will have to pay me again or they will have to pay me the sum to purchase the rights to the book, and the purchase price is a lot larger than the lease price.
BB: Could they drop the lease and move on?
CM: Yes, if in a year from August, if they decide that they are really not going to move forward with the movie, then they will let the rights drop and any other studio can pick them up. I have heard of this happening with other people. And sometimes, and I hate to say it, sometimes studios option books that are similar to something that they are putting out, so that they don’t turn into movies at other studios.
BB: Do you get paid more if the movie comes out?
CM: Yes, I get a percentage. As my agent says, that’s the “change your world money.” The one great thing is that if a studio makes a good movie, then there is a boost in book sales. If a studio makes a bad movie, there is a boost in book sales. I read something that said that you have to see the cover of a book seven times before you buy it, whether you hear someone talk about it, or you see an ad, or you walk by the cover in a store.
BB: Did you have any requests for the producers?
CM: They asked me what was really important, and I asked them to keep the humor. I think that right now with a dystopian book, if you don’t keep the humor, you lose so much of the audience. I don’t really like the movies where there is no balance to darkness and despair of the story. In The Hunger Games adaptations, they kept jokes in there. You did laugh every so often and then you were pleasantly surprised that you were laughing.
BB: Do you mean humor gives the audience an outlet for the tension?
CM: Exactly. I strive to do that in Breaking Sky, the book. I said I don’t want [the movie] to turn into a dark, depressing gloomy kind of thing. They said it definitely would not. The producer works on the TV show “Bones,” which has lot of gallows humor. I love gallows humor.
BB: How has your experience with Hollywood informed advice you’d give to other writers?
CM: I don’t think you can ever plan or write a book that is definitely going to have TV or movie appeal. That is not something you can bank on. A lot of books get optioned but do not get made into movies. Thankfully, Breaking Sky is in the developmental stage, so it’s gone beyond option, which is really exciting. But at the same time, you never know when a movie is going to come out.
The Enders Game movie took over 25 years to actually come together and turn into a movie and come out on the screen. So I know the popular TV show that people like right now, “Outlander,” that book was written in the ’80s. So it’s one of those things that even if your book gets optioned, nothing might come of it, or it might be 10 years before you hear anything. So in that way, it’s a lot like publishing: it’s a lot of silence and waiting.
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