What Makes a Book "Right" For Film Vs. Tv?

Curtis Brown's Holly Frederick Explains the Differences

A director on a film set watching actors perform a scene
••• Caspar Benson/Creative RF/Getty Images

What makes a book appealing for adaptation by film or TV producers? How can you tell if a book is screen-worthy?

Holly Frederick, film and TV agent for Curtis Brown Ltd. literary agency, divulges what makes a book good for TV series vs. a film — and what appeals to a big studio versus an independent production.

Holly, when we're talking about producer interest in screen adaptation, how much does a book's concept matter versus, say, character development?

It depends on whether we're talking about big screen or little screen — that is, film rights or TV rights.

Character is really, really important in TV right now because there are so many great TV series that are anchored on really, really great characters. From Julianna Margulies on The Good Wife to Don Draper in Mad Men.  

I think concept - high concept - matters the most in features. But I look at some of the movies that are coming out of the studios and, really, they're high concept is more important than character.

When I say features, I mean studio films and films that are larger-budgeted films that have the studios behind them, essentially. Character still matters, ultimately, in independent film.

Like in the family drama that was previewed at the inaugural BookCon, This is Where I Leave You? Or Silver Linings Playbook?

Yes. I also think both of those books were pretty well-loved and the projects come with pedigree attached because the authors [Jonathan Tropper and Michael Quick, respectively] are well-admired writers.

These are good examples of my overall feeling that books are the best "bait" that you can possibly hope for in attracting really high caliber writer and director and actors. And so a really good book is bait for a lot of people — on the strength of a book you're able to attract really great talent to work on its adaptation.

I think that in both cases they were popular books by successful authors and material that screenwriters and directors [and actors] think 'This looks kind of challenging, kind of interesting. I think I'd like to work on it.'

Also important I know in the case of Silver Linings Playbook that it took really smart, really strong producers who were able to 'herd the cats,' so to speak, and find the right writer and find the right director and find the financier and find the actors.

Great books, strong producers, smart talent  — that's how these projects come together.

Can you speak to the film versus TV climate for book rights sales?

I've been selling a lot to TV right now. There are so many new distributors and so many new channels — and the channels are maybe understanding their audiences a little more and tailoring the product that they make — I hate referring to a TV show based on a book as "product," but you know what I mean.

There's more television buyers, and it's a creative, creative world right now. And there are no rules. Take for example the show The Knick — it's really, really cool, but I just couldn't imagine this project ending up as a feature film. I don't know what studio would make a film about a 19th-century doctor in a very experimental field.

Why is that?

Feature films are more expensive to make, they're more expensive to advertise, they're more expensive to distribute. It's a much, much bigger risk to finance a feature film than it is to finance a television show. And the higher the risk, the safer the studios want to bet – and that's why you have the sequels, and that's why you have movies that are based on existing intellectual properties — DC Comics or Mattel Toys. That's the safer bet for the studios.

And television is more open to different ideas?

TV seems to be really receptive to books in general right now, and to interesting worlds – be it the world of The Game of Thrones or the world of The Knick or — in the case of a Curtis Brown property — the world of Ben Percy's Red Moon, which is a werewolf thriller at Fox right now.

I maybe shouldn't say it like this, but kind of The Walking Dead with werewolves — a world that pits werewolves against people who aren't infected with Lycan blood.

Another project we have in development is the science fiction writer Frederick Pohl's Gateway. He wrote many, many novels — he passed away a year and a half ago — but this was one of his crown jewels. Gateway is about inter-planetary travel and exploration. It's kind of classic sci-fi, but TV is very open to that now, I think because it's not that expensive to do anymore. Sci-fi used to be one of those genres that had to go to a studio because it was an expensive genre to film but now, with the advances that have been made.

Procedurals are popular, too — I have a great set of books by Joy Castro that are set up with some producers and Lionsgate that features a Cuban-born crime journalist living in New Orleans. And there's a good example of where a great character helps sell the property — the protagonist is edgy, deeply intelligent and deeply flawed at the same time. Those kinds of books I think will always find interested television buyers.

Related to concept and characters of the book "bait," of course, there are also trends — can you speak to how trends in the marketplace affect the sale?

Read Holly Frederick's take on how trends in the film and television marketplace affect the rights sales and learn more from her about:

Read more insights into the children's, young adult and general book publishing landscape and actionable advice on how to engage a literary agent in these additional interviews of Curtis Brown Ltd agents. 

Holly Frederick, film and television agent for Curtis Brown Ltd. literary agency in New York City, began her career at the Susan Schulman Literary Agency. For many years she was a development executive for the Academy Award nominated director Alan J. Pakula. She attended Barnard College and the USC School of Cinematic Arts.