Don Winslow: Top 10 Things Studios, Networks and Streamers Could Do To Treat Authors Better

Don Winslow Typewriter
Robert Gallagher; Mike Fleming

Editor’s Note: Don Winslow has spent the week writing a series of columns on his adventures in Hollywood for Deadline, even as he navigated the launch of his new William Morrow novella collection Broken with a virtual book tour. The response to these columns — some of the best writing we’ve seen on Deadline — has been inspiring, and luckily the author too likes the fit. While he won’t continue to work ever day for no pay (beyond the demoralization of me having to wear the same New England Pats shirt for the whole week), Winslow will continue to write the occasional column for us. He’s got more planned, including some that will discuss more recent of his books that are on the drawing board as series and films. He has not said what I will have to submit to to get these columns, but this week was sure worth it. Final hostage pic is below.  – MF


Top 10 Things Studios, Networks and Streamers Could Do To Treat Authors Better

By Don Winslow

1. Remember how many great films began with great books.

Gone With the Wind, The Godfather, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Schindler’s List, Goodfellas, Forest Gump, The Exorcist, Games of Thrones, Bird Box and It. What do all these great films and television shows have in common? They were all great books first. Likewise No Country For Old Men, The Shawshank Redemption, Silence of the Lambs, Jaws, The Firm, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Want to have some fun? Look at the forty years of Best Picture winners and see how many of them were adapted from books.

I know that you love franchises – Harry Potter, James Bond, Lord of the Rings, Jason Bourne and Hunger Games all started as books.

And remember, every single Marvel movie began as a Marvel comic book.

2. Call the author.

When you first acquire a book, pick up the phone and call the author. Behind the property you bought – and therefore theoretically loved – is a person, who often worked years, if not a lifetime, on the book. So giving them a call isn’t only the right thing to do, it’s the classy thing. Take a moment to tell them how much you liked their work and share your plans for developing and producing. Authors aren’t the vestigial bone on the body cinema, in many ways we are its heart and blood.

3. Establish a relationship with the author.

Too many studios think that once the contracts are signed their relationship with the author is over. You can do it that way, but it’s a mistake, an opportunity blown. Castle Rock formed and maintained a real relationship with Stephen King and look at the result — he kept giving them books and together they made phenomenal films like the aforementioned Shawshank Redemption, Misery, Stand By Me and others. Incidentally, two of those films were directed by the same person, Rob Reiner, resulting in hit after hit. Relationships matter, authors matter.

4. Encourage dialogue between the author and the screenwriter and director.

Too often, the director and screenwriter see the author as a hindrance rather than a help and never contact us. But remember, some of the problems you’re facing are challenges that we struggled with years before. While books and films are different media, the structural issues are often identical. I remember an experience where a book of mine was optioned and I heard nothing for months. When I finally called to check in, I learned that they were having story and character problems, the same issues I’d had in early drafts of the book, which was why I went a different route. I suggested a solution and it worked. Had we been talking on a regular basis, I could have saved them two years, two screenwriters, and several million dollars in development.

5. Show the author every draft, not just the one you like.

I often tell film people, “Two thousand years before you were editing, we were editing.” We get it, we understand the process. We know trial and error because it is the stuff of our daily lives. So please don’t hide it from us. Let us send notes and suggestions. You don’t have to follow them, but even the Supreme Court hears arguments before they render a verdict. Again, we can be assets and not liabilities; allies, not enemies. Authors like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King have made critical contributions to the film adaptations of their works. Remember, Godfather author Mario Puzo co-wrote the screenplays to some pretty good films.

6. Be transparent.

No author should first find out news about the development of his own book in the media. That’s the worst thing that can happen, and, unfortunately, it happens all the time. I know you spend months and years on these projects, but please be aware that we often spend years if not decades. My “Cartel Trilogy” – The Power of the Dog, The Cartel, The Border – represents a third of my life. So for us to read in the media about an actor signing on, or a director leaving the film for another project is not only dismissive and offensive, but worse, undercuts the trust necessary for a productive collaboration.

We can take bad news, what we can’t handle is silence.

Again, pick up the phone.

Treat us like partners and we will be.

7. Keep the core story and characters intact.

I know you don’t believe this, but we do understand that books and films are different media. We know they have different needs that mandate changes. (And please don’t talk to us like we’re children. My hand to God, I’ve been in too many meetings in which film people actually slow down their speech when they’re talking to me.) So some changes are necessary, but you bought the book for a reason, and unless that reason was just the premise, you have an obligation to stick to the core story and the characters. Are the Godfather films different than the novel? Sure. Was Jaws changed to suit the needs of film? Of course. But all of those movies retained the central story and the characters, they stayed faithful to the core values of the books. I could list any number of successful films that did, and, sadly, even more that didn’t.

Please don’t take something that you love and turn it into something that no one could love.

8. Remember that a failure at one studio is not a life sentence.

A great book is always a great book. So if it doesn’t get made at one studio, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth making somewhere else. I wrote a novel, The Winter of Frankie Machine, that has attracted the attention of three great directors – Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann and William Friedkin. Scorsese chose to make The Irishman (a good film) instead, and Frankie ultimately fell out of development at Paramount. That was disappointing, but it’s still the same book that attracted those wonderful, award-winning directors. It’s no less of a book than it was the day it was published. I think it would still make a good film, and maybe someday it will. Murderers get life without the possibility of parole, don’t condemn books to solitary confinement.

9. If a film wins an award, please thank the author.

Over the years, I’ve watched the Academy Awards, seen films adapted from books win Best Picture, and no one thanked the author.

Come on, guys – years before you were taking meetings, adapting, casting, story-boarding, filming and walking that red carpet, some author was sitting alone is some room coming up with the idea and laboring to bring it to life on the page. Most of the time, that author was also struggling to pay the bills. I know, I was that guy. I’ve watched actors gripping that statue say that they don’t forget their roots. All well and good, but please don’t forget the roots of the work that helped you win that award. Just a simple “thank you” means a lot.

10. Support the book.

It’s one world now, folks. Books, film, television, streaming content, traditional media, social media – in the words of Lenny Bruce, “We’re all the same cat.” When someone sneezes in LA, someone in New York says “Gezundheit.”

We need each other, and you in the film business can do so much to support the books that you’ve optioned or purchased. Talk up the book on your social media, use your networking to get the word out, appear with the author at an event, tell the world why you bought the book, what you love about it, and what your plans are for it. Got some exciting casting news? Call us first, and then let everyone know. Believe me, it helps enormously, it sells books, and it’s good for you down the road when the film comes out.

We can help you, too. I am asked all the time – I mean virtually on a daily basis – about my experience with film and television projects. The questions come from media, but also from readers – very protective of books they love. I have a wide choice of how I answer, and I almost invariably choose to support you.

We’re in this together.

We need each other.

Let’s support each other.

Buy Winslow’s book here.

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