Sandy George investigates the links between publishing houses and filmmakers, to see what books are being optioned for a film adaptation.
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15 Nov 2011 - 11:30 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

Film or television rights to Jeff Apter's music biography A Pure Drop, The Life of Jeff Buckley, Toni Jordan's debut novel Addition, Peter Fitzsimon's historical novel Batavia and five novels by Gabrielle Lord centred on her fictional Sydney private investigator Gemma Lincoln, have all been sold this year.

It doesn't mean that adaptations of these particular Australian books will be seen any time soon on screen – several filmmakers are working on projects about Jeff Buckley, for example, and one involves his mother – but it is a first step.

If precedence means anything Lord's novels are frontrunners: her first published book, Fortress, became a telemovie starring Rachel Ward in the mid-1980s and a decade later Whipping Boy also ended up on screen starring Sigrid Thornton. Perhaps it is time for another.

Another big factor is the strength of the filmmaking team. Addition has been optioned by producers Cristina Pozzan and Bruna Papandrea, who has deepened her financing and producing experience considerably since going abroad after the local success of Better Than Sex, which opened the 2000 Sydney Film Festival.

Batavia is about a series of real-life events in the 1620s that happened around the Dutch merchant ship Batavia, which was grounded off the Western Australian coast. It was optioned by Sydney-based Screentime, which intends making a six-hour mini-series. Few producers would be able to raise the funds necessary for such an ambitious period production but Screentime is one of Australia's most experienced production companies, with recent credits including Underbelly, Crownies and Cloudstreet, adapted from Tim Winton's book.

Most publishers do not doubt that more contact and conversation is occurring between film and book people. The Melbourne International Film Festival's (MIFF) new habit of getting the two groups together each year and the actions of certain publishers has helped.

“We consciously decided to do something about how few [film and television] projects were being generated around our books and made it our business to get to know the film industry and retain film rights where we could,” said Text publisher Michael Heyward. Addition is a Text title.

Heyward reports that Peter Temple novels are popular with producers: telemovies adapted from Bad Debts and Black Tide and starring Guy Pearce will be on ABC1 in 2012, the ABC also has the rights to The Broken Shore and director John Polson has optioned a fourth Temple book, Truth, with the aim of making it into a feature. Filmmakers are also beavering away on Kate Grenville's novel The Secret River.

“I'm doing it [getting more involved in the film world] partly for intellectual reasons: the conversations are interesting,” said Heyward, who has no illusions about how difficult it is to finance production. “But I think a lot of [Australian] producers need to read a lot more books.”

There are no rules about who filmmakers do their deals with, and often it is with the author's agent, not a publisher. (Sometimes too, as in the case of the Random House title Batavia, it is direct with the author). Staff at Curtis Brown, which bills itself as Australia's oldest and largest literary agency, are also putting more effort into exploiting film and television rights, according to agent Pippa Masson. However, she chuckles at how the publishing world sometimes finds it difficult to judge what books will interest filmmakers.

“Everyone wants something different and we are often thrown by what people are interested in,” Masson says. “It is a different medium and a different way of telling stories, and we don't know about the costs of production, how something will translate, or how an adaptation will go down with audiences.”

Apter and Lord – the five Lord books optioned in October were Feeding the Demons, Baby did a Bad Bad Thing, Spiking the Girl, Shattered and Death by Beauty – are both Curtis Brown authors. Masson also reports that a short story titled Happy Fathers Day from Great Australian Working Dog Stories, an anthology by client Angela Goode and Mike Hayes, was also optioned last month.

Short stories can be popular because they allow filmmakers a lot of room for imagination. Some filmmakers are also wary of best sellers – their popularity is a good marketing hook but upsetting loyal readers is a danger – preferring to mine the books that are not quite brilliant

Several publishers mention that many current conversations are around television rather than film projects, driven in part by the current popularity of The Slap on ABC TV, a brilliant adaptation from the very popular novel of Christos Tsiolkas. But the hit of the year in cinemas is Red Dog (pictured) from the novel by Louis de Bernières.

“Both true crime and military are popular for series, particularly coming up to the 100-year anniversary of WWI,” said Wenona Byrne from Allen & Unwin. “We have recently sold rights to Other Anzacs by Peter Rees, about nurses in the Great War and a sale of a new book on Gallipoli is in the works. In true crime we sold rights to The Fast Life and Sudden Death Of Michael McGurk by Richard Vereker.

“Recent sales for features are mainly of books set in period Australia such as The Roving Party by Rohan Wilson, which is set in Tasmania in the early 1800s, and The Life by Malcolm Knox, which is set mostly in the late '60s and '70s on the Gold Coast. These are on the back of the recent adaptation of Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher mystery series set in the 1920s which will screen next year on the ABC, and might suggest a trend away from contemporary settings.”

Another person who has been driving links between the two industries is Martha Coleman, head of development at Screen Australia and producer of Praise, adapted from the novel by Andrew McGahan. Coleman notes that there are still untapped opportunities: Australian producers could spend time establishing stronger relationships with publishers so they can get material before it is published and take more notice of idea, hook and plot rather than a book's literary strengths, which is the biggest trap that people in book publishing make when judging potential for adaptation.

According to research conducted last year by Screen Australia and researcher Matthew Hancock, it is of benefit to producers to look more carefully at what is happening in the world of books. Hancock examined 200 Australian films made up to 2008 and found that, in very general terms, a typical adaptation had a good chance of outperforming a typical film made from an original script at Australian cinemas. That said, an original has a greater propensity to be a big hit and also a big failure. In other words, they are more volatile.

He found that the 38 of the 200 titles that were based on existing creative works including books, poems, plays – and also existing films – took 25 percent of ticket sales. In contrast, in the US, about half of all films were adaptations and they attracted two-thirds of box office revenues.

Lantana (2001) was the highest grossing adaptation in the sample, followed by Looking for Alibrandi (2000). Three were bunched up in third place: Ned Kelly (2003), Crocodile Dundee in LA (2001) and Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002).

“Our industry is maturing beautifully,” said Coleman. “I think everyone now – filmmakers, funding agencies, distributors – have the same goal in mind and are working to the same end which is well-crafted, good, diverse films to entertain audiences in a variety of ways.”

Just as optioning a book is a significant step towards getting it on screen, so is getting development assistance from Coleman's department, which only supports features. A check of her records shows that 12 adaptations since mid-August have won support, although some of the funding is for option renewals rather than recently purchased properties. She thinks it is a good result and that the links between publishing and film are strengthening.

The 12 projects are:

The Bunyip of Berkely's Creek, producer Melanie Coombs, writer/director Sofia Gollan.

Force of Destiny, based on Paul Cox's memoir Tales from the Cancer Ward, producer Maggie Miles, writer/director Paul Cox.

The Great, based on Tony MacNamara's stage play, producer Marian MacGowan, writer Tony MacNamara, director Gillian Armstrong.

The Arrival, based on Shaun Tan's children's novel, producer Sophie Byrne, writer John Collee, director Shaun Tan.

The Dressmaker, based on the novel by Rosalie Ham, producer Sue Maslin, writer/director Jocelyn Moorehouse.

The Household Guide to Dying, based on the novel by Debra Adelaide, producer Catriona Hughes, writer/director Emma-Kate Croghan.

Coonardoo, based on the novel by Susannah Prichard, producer/writer Particia Hunder, director Catriona MacKenzie.

Almost French, based on the novel by Sarah Turnbull, producer Sonja Armstrong, writer/director Kate Dennis.

Emily Tempest, based on the novel by Adrian Hyland, producer John Molloy, writer Richard Molloy.

Remarkable Creatures, based on the novel by Tracey Chevalier, producer Heather Ogilvie, writer Jan Sardi.

Breath, based on the novel by Tim Winton, producers Jamie Hilton and Simon Baker, writer Peter Duncan.

Choir of Hard Knocks, based on a documentary, producer Marian MacGowan, writer Pip Karmel, director Jonathan Teplitzky.