A version of this article appears on the French In Motion website.
If you’ve watched an American movie recently, there’s a good chance that the script was derived from already published material. For big studio productions, those odds jump up to somewhere between 75 and 90%. Oscar ambitions for Best Original Screenplay aside, the adaptation market is the most lucrative for film, and as a VP of Literary Affairs at Legendary Entertainment, Deborah Kauffmann is at the center of the action. She was joined by acclaimed French director Benoit Cohen at a March 21st French in Motion discussion on adapting stories into films and TV series.
“My job is, on a daily basis, to find the next ‘Harry Potter,’ the next ‘Hunger Games,’ basically the next mega franchise.” said Kaufmann. A publishing veteran, Kaufmann was at one time the chief foreign acquisitions editor at Editions Michel Lafon, where she considered English-language bestsellers for the French market. Today she applies the same eye for bankable content and understanding of different contexts to the entertainment world, resulting in blockbusters such as King Kong: Skull Island.
As Kaufmann explained, existing content comprises more than bestselling fiction. Intellectual property—IP, in industry jargon—can include nonfiction books, memoirs, plays, articles, Marvel superheroes, and iconic beasts like King Kong. Producers will option IP in order to obtain the rights to begin working on the material for a period of time, before formally acquiring it for a comparatively larger sum.
IP is an important foundation for big-budget productions because it’s considered to be less risky, and there’s often already a fan base attached to the material. The demand extends to television, and the potential payoff is indisputable when you consider the success of IP-derived shows such as Orange is the New Black (adapted from a memoir), House of Cards (adapted from a British mini-series), and Big Little Lies (adapted from a novel). Accordingly, the option market for quality IP can be aggressive; Kaufmann estimates that almost every crime novel in the U.K. is optioned for television before the book is even published.
The demand is less intense for foreign-language IP. “Eurocomics” may have millions of fans across the Atlantic, but Hollywood sees the cultural differences in the characters and plotlines as impediments to conventional comic book adaptations. And when the studios push for prequel and sequel rights, some eurocomics publishers may have been disinclined in the past to sell to the U.S. at all, for fear that their writers will be forced to stop writing entirely.
IP factors less into the world of independent film (notwithstanding recent Oscar-winner Moonlight, adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished play), and following the success of his 2013 film You’ll Be a Man, Benoit Cohen planned to write and direct his next feature, this time about a New York City taxi driver. But when Cohen decided to immerse himself in the world of his protagonist by becoming a taxi driver himself, he realized that the first life of his story should be as a book. After a year of chronicling his experiences, Cohen sold his story to the prestigious French publisher Flammarion. Realizing he could no longer distance himself from the subject, Cohen decided to hire a screenwriter to adapt Yellow Cab into a film.
“He’s working on the script right now, adapting my own book, which is a little bit weird,” said Cohen.
As much as the literary world impacts film, film has the power to breathe new life into books. With only a tiny portion of foreign-language works translated into English, it was unlikely that even a major French bestseller like “Oh…” would make it to the American market. But when it was adapted into the hit movie Elle and nominated for an Oscar, the book finally found an English translator in the U.K.
Cohen chose to go through the French publishing system first because of the quick turnover; most French writers forgo agents to work with publishers directly, and it only took six months for Cohen’s book to be released. Still, he hopes that his book will be published in the U.S. as well, which would further increase the story’s prospects—perhaps even as a TV show.