Authors Earn More Leverage in Film and TV Rights Market Amid Pandemic

Netflix picked up both Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary and Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste in seven-figure deals in 2020.
Courtesy of Penguin Random House (2)

MGM picked Andy Weir’s 'Project Hail Mary' while Netflix nabbed Isabel Wilkerson’s 'Caste' in seven-figure deals in 2020.

Amid a bustling year for deals given streaming demand, writers increasingly ask for more creative control in projects: "We are able to ask for things that we weren’t able to ask for in the past."

During Hollywood’s pandemic shutdowns in 2020, one market stayed bustling: media rights sales. That has been a boon to some authors and agents who were able to get book-to-film or TV packages sold during a quieter time for the industry. “We felt like we had to make the most of opportunities during this period — otherwise, it would be very shortsighted of us,” says CAA books agent Michelle Kroes of the uptick on interest in the rights market.

The top four agencies’ divisions that handle media rights have been doing more business since the start of the pandemic as compared to the same time period the previous year, with CAA and UTA each pegging their deal totals at more than 250. The growth in streaming deals and interest in diverse stories are contributing factors to a booming rights marketplace, one where authors long sidelined in Hollywood adaptations now hold a more prominent role.

“[The pandemic] escalated what was going to happen a few years from now. It was just in a much shorter window,” says UTA’s media rights group co-head Jason Richman. The launching of studio streaming services created a need for content, and the past year's e-suite reorganizations left new hires with slates that needed filling. Adds Richman, “There has been so much change that it creates opportunity."

There was an initial worry that the production shutdown would affect the interest in materials for development, but that worry was quickly quelled, as high-priced deals were made on expedited timelines. In March, shortly after studio lots were shuttered, The Martian writer Andy Weir’s latest novel, Project Hail Mary, sold with Ryan Gosling attached to star, in a massive $3 million deal to MGM. Months later, in August, debut author Femi Fadugba's The Upper World, with Daniel Kaluuya attached to star, was shopped on a Monday and by Friday had sold to Netflix in a $2 million deal.

Those who have participated in the rights market, both as buyers and sellers, are in agreement on one thing: Authors finally have leverage. As seven-figure bidding wars, often with upward of a dozen potential buyers, become more commonplace, authors and their reps are able to negotiate for more creative control, and stakes as writers and producers. “We are able to ask for things that we weren’t able to ask for in the past, and there is a sense of acceptance,” notes ICM’s Josie Freedman.

Several sources note that during the first several months of the pandemic, most major agencies had yet to reach a deal with the Writers Guild — UTA broke ranks in July — which left authors as the primary writing voice in many packaged projects, adding leverage. (All agencies have since come to terms with the guild, with WME the last holdout firm agreeing to terms in February.) Even after the guild standoff ended, authors have kept leverage thanks to unparalleled interest in rights.

Television has always been a more welcoming medium, where writers rooms allow authors-turned-screenwriters to safely navigate breaking their stories alongside veteran showrunners, but the past year has seen an uptick in writing and producing credits in the feature space. This February, Makeready, and producer Misha Green tapped debut novelist Namina Forna to adapt her 2020 best-selling fantasy trilogy The Gilded Ones for film.

Pandemic must-watch viewing like Netflix's Bridgerton inspired a romance boom, with back catalogs from a stable of romance and “beach read” authors like Sylvia Day and Elin Hilderbrand mined across streamers, networks, and studios. While Netflix's Queen’s Gambit, which languished in development for decades, has inspired buyers to take chances on possibly costly period stories and genre-agnostic titles.

“An importance has been placed on literary authors for material that didn’t necessarily fit into a genre. It doesn’t have to be romantic comedy or horror,” says Freedman. In October, ICM sold Isabel Wilkerson’s expansive scholarly work Caste to Netflix, with Ava DuVernay set to direct.

Moreover, reps note a desire for material from nonwhite authors, and studios’ ask to keep those authors attached to their work. Says Flora Hackett, of WME’s literary packaging department, “If it’s a singular voice — especially if it is reflective of their own experience — people want to have the author involved. Certainly, more so than five or 10 years ago.”

As for what genres are selling, Hackett notes, “We say this to publishing agents all day long when we are looking for material: optimism.” While producers at the top of the pandemic asked after COVID-friendly stories that centered on only a few characters or took place in one location, this trend quickly died off and was replaced with big buys in the speculative fiction space that can lend themselves to star-driven franchises and spectacle cinema.

Hackett adds: “No one wants apocalyptic right now. Nobody wants a story where a virus is coming. It’s like, ‘We know.’”

A version of this story appeared in the April 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.