How can Christian writers and filmmakers work more closely together to bring life-changing stories to life?
Film is a powerful medium to use to point people toward God. Besides basing movies on Bible stories, filmmakers often use best-selling Christian books as source material. Over the past few years, some of the top faith-based films have been based on books, including The Shack and Miracles From Heaven. However, filmmaking is complicated, and it can be difficult for authors, producers, literary agents, and publishers to connect.
For content creators, the film optioning and licensing can be confusing. Steve Laube, president of the Steve Laube Agency, offers a simplified explanation.
“Usually it’s someone who believes in the story and is willing to invest in obtaining the license for film rights. There’s usually a fee to obtain a time-limited license,” he says. “From that they create a script that’s then pitched to producers. Once the funding is secured then many other things have to happen before production begins. For the author, the original license usually has additional monies paid to them when production begins.”
When it comes to getting a movie made, many hurdles must be overcome, the most important one being funding.
“Feature films cost a lot of money to produce well. Therefore, finding the producers willing to back a project isn’t an easy task,” says Laube.
Bobby Downes, filmmaker and co-founder of ChristianCinema.com, believes that over the past 30 years, faith-based films also have faced problems with finding production funding, getting a quality crew and cast, obtaining marketing funding, and finding both a marketing company that understands the faith-based consumer and a good distributor.
“Today, these challenges all exist, plus now there are multiple sources and options for each area. So, the challenge today is pulling together the right mix of all of these options. That’s just a part of the business. It was just more difficult in the early days when they did not exist for faith films,” he says.” But the primary challenge will always be choosing the right story and how that story will be told. Story is king.”
Author and screenwriter Rene Gutteridge, who has had three novels optioned, notes that good movies only work when there’s a good script.
“It’s really important for filmmakers to use screenwriters. A good, high-quality script is the first step in achieving a great film. You can have all the money in the world, but if you don’t have a good script, it won’t get you anywhere,” she says. “A professional screenwriter is not only able to write their own screenplays, but they’re also capable of taking someone else’s vision and idea for a movie and putting it on paper for them, or taking a first draft and strengthening it. I’d challenge all filmmakers to never let a movie start filming without having a screenwriter look at the script and make sure it’s in top form.”
Movie production companies want to know they’ll get a return on their investment, so when they consider what books might successfully make the leap to the screen, they consider how well the source material has performed.
Karen Watson, fiction publisher at Tyndale House, has found that “most film development companies aren’t very interested until a project or an author has some measurable commercial consumer awareness. They’ll want to know sales figures, awards, author publishing history, etc.”
When Rich Peluso, EVP for AFFIRM Films, a SONY Pictures Entertainment Company, is considering a book for film, he looks for a compelling, inspiring (or gripping), and entertaining story that has found a sizeable—and measurable—audience.
“The cost of creating and distributing a book into the marketplace pales in comparison with the millions of dollars and thousands of people it takes to create, market, and distribute a feature film. To expect those resources it takes to make a film be expended on a little-known or unknown story isn’t realistic,” he says.
When determining whether a story would be good for film, Downes starts with the end in mind. “Where will the story first be watched? On TV? If so, through a subscription platform? When determining the release strategy for a movie, one of the first questions to answer is who is the audience.”
He continues, “Secondly, what’s the scope of the project? The scale and scope also will determine the release strategy. So, economics play into the decision-making. The larger the scale and scope of the project, the bigger the budget needed to complete it. The release strategy is determined by what the potential revenue will be to offset the cost of creating the movie. Theatrical films can gross more dollars than any other release strategy, but the risk is super high.”
“Film scripts are one page for every minute of screen time. So a 90-minute film is only a 90-page, double-spaced script … mostly with dialogue,” Laube explains. “Thus a wide- sweeping, multi-character, complex novel of 100,000 words would be difficult to portray in a film script since much of it has to be left out. I would like to see all our clients’ novels be on the big screen. But that isn’t practical.”
For a good story to appeal to moviegoers, Downes says it must meet certain criteria.
“First, intellectual property. Is it widely known? This is why biblical stories have historically done well when done truthfully. Second is the cast of the film, which draws people to the theater. Next is the production value. What does the film look like? Is it believable? And finally, the crafting of the faith messaging is important. Mass market doesn’t mind faith in films/television, as long as it’s delivered in a way that rings true to their experience and is honest and authentic. Where Christian movies have failed to reach the mass market, we tend to see this as the problem point.”
Gutteridge believes today is an exciting time in Christian filmmaking. “More and more people are celebrating film as a wonderful form of art and seeing the impact it can have on lives. I’m hoping the more high-quality films we see come out over the next few years will yield more investors who want to be a part of what a film can do.”
Read more about the process of turning best-selling books into films at cbaonline.org/lightscamerawrite.
Read more about ancillary products, marketing, and novelizations at cbaonline.org/filmproductopportunities.