They Turned My Book Into a Movie. Here's What I Learned
It was a lot.
They’ve turned my 2003 gay teen novel Geography Club into a movie. It’ll be released in select theaters and on video-on-demand everywhere on November 15th, 2013, and people have already started asking me how it all happened and what I’ve learned from the whole experience.
What did I learn?
The story starts when I graduated from college and decided to try to make a career writing novels and screenplays. It was the early 90s, and one of my first books was a young adult novel about a gay teen named Russel Middlebrook and his misfit friends. It was an extremely personal topic for me, because I had been a gay teenager, and I had also co-founded one of the United States’ very first gay teen support groups, in 1990.
For ten years, I (and later my agent, Jennifer DeChiara) tried to sell the book to publishers. A lot of editors wanted to buy it, but ultimately I heard the same thing over and over again: “I really like this, but the accountants at my publishing house tell me there’s no market for a book about gay teenagers.”
In early 2001, a brave editor at HarperCollins named Steve Fraser bought the book, even over the objections of the accountants there, who were just as certain as everyone else that the project would flop.
The book finally came out in early 2003. Two weeks after it was released, it had already gone into a third printing. In other words, all those accountants and all those publishing houses who said there was no market for a book about gay teens? They didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.
Because the book was a hit, I was given the opportunity to write lots of other books. I even turned Geography Club into a series, the Russel Middlebrook Series.
Better still, we had a lot of movie producers interested in developing the first book as a feature film or TV series. Different companies optioned it and took it around Hollywood. But this was long before Glee, and time and again, the answer was, “We really like this, but there’s no market for a movie or a TV show about gay teenagers.”
It got to the point where the producer said to me, “I literally think this thing has been rejected by every studio, network, and financing company in town.”
But two producers, Frederick Levy and Bryan Leder (and later, their producing partners Michael Huffington and Anthony Bretti) wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. And finally, ten years after the book was published, they got the movie made — with pretty much a dream cast too (including Hairspray’s Nikki Blonsky, Suburgatory‘s Ana Gasteyer, Glee‘s Alex Newell, The Lying Game‘s Allie Gonino, Scott Bakula, and a bunch of up-and-coming young actors).
Even better, the finished movie’s good. There’s even talk of doing the sequel as a movie too should the first movie prove to be a hit.
So what’s the take-away from all this? Listen to your heart, not the nay-sayers? Never give up your dreams?
Maybe, but the fact is, if certain people hadn’t been willing to move heaven and earth for me and my projects at key points in my career, my book and the movie never would have happened, and right now I’d probably be asking, “Would you like fries with that?” That’s kind of sobering when I think about it.
But if I’ve learned anything at all over the years about selling books and making movies, it’s this: there are really only two ways books get published and movies ever get made:
(1) Create a book or movie project that everyone thinks will make them a lot of money. This is a lot easier said than done, since you never know what other books and movies will be flops and hits right around the time your project is being pitched. Talent counts for something here, but I think this is mostly just timing and luck.
(2) Create a book or movie project that at least few people feel really passionately about — so passionately that they’ll keep working on it even as everyone else tells them they’re crazy, that it’s certain to flop, and that they’re wasting their time.
Basically, the choice is: go with your brain or go with your heart.
On one hand, going with your heart is trickier: do you really want to devote years of your life to a project that a lot of editors and producers won’t even want to read? On the other hand, it’s a lot easier than trying to predict exactly where the crazy pop culture market and zeitgeist are headed. All you have to do is ask yourself: what exactly do I personally feel the most passionate about? What project would I desperately like to see that doesn’t already exist?
If you’d asked me my opinion earlier in my career, in the midst of all the rejection for Geography Club the book and later the movie, I would have said, “Do strategy number one! Go with your brain! Write that dystopian zombie-vampire book! There at least you have a chance for success! Strategy number two is for suckers and fools!” (And then I would have added, “Would you like fries with that?”)
But I’ve been in the business for a while now, and I’ve seen editors and producers get very excited about my work, only to lose interest when the project didn’t turn out to be an instant hit or get immediate financing.
I also think it’s very interesting the only movie projects I’m associated with that are actually getting made – Geography Club and another film I wrote that will hopefully be out next year — are the passion projects. In other words, strategy number two.
There’s another benefit to choosing strategy number two: you’re working with people who aren’t just in it for the money. They’re in it for the passion. Which means — at least in my experience — they’re far less likely to be jerks. Since you end up so intimately involved with these folks, and since your words and your career are so closely associated with them, this not a small thing. I’m very proud to call these colleagues my friends.
The screenwriter William Goldman once famously said about Hollywood, “No one knows anything,” and it’s probably the most accurate thing ever said about that town (it’s completely true of New York publishing as well).
No one knows anything. Sometimes a project flies high, sometimes it completely flops (and usually it lands somewhere in that infuriating middle area in between).
And no matter what anyone says, no matter how much money they spend or who is involved, no one can predict for sure which projects will be successful and which not. That’s what makes a career in the arts so frustrating — and also so magical.
Making movies and publishing books are ultimately businesses: they exist to make money. As a result, a lot of the people in those industries like to talk like success is all about the brain. They want to believe they have some control over the money they’re spending.
Do they? Maybe. But in my case, success turned out to be all about the heart.
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