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John Scalzi – Odds Are, Your Favorite SciFi Novel Is Not the Next Total Recall

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about the scifi books I’d most want to see made into a movie. Then I got this letter from a reader:

“I was recently reading a science fiction book I really enjoyed (not one of yours, sorry) and I was wondering what the chances were of it ever being made into a big movie. I’d assume it’s small.”

You would assume correctly, dear reader, and let me explain why.

1. It’s a simple matter of odds: Far more scifi books get published each year than movies are released from all the major Hollywood studios combined. A major studio will release about 20 to 25 pictures of all types and genres per year, of which two or three might be science fiction or fantasy. A single science fiction publisher like Tor Books, on the other hand, releases 90 original hardcover titles a year. Even if every single movie slot were filled with science fiction releases (which is, uh, optimistic), the odds of your favorite scifi book being made into a movie would still be long.

2. Most science fiction movies are not based on novels: A quick glance at the 2009 releases shows it’s bereft of scifi novel adaptations. We’ve got scifi movies based on graphic novels, video games, toys and old TV shows. Science fiction novels? Well, The Road is supposed to get a release someday, and The Time Traveler’s Wife is completed but not scheduled (note well also that both of those scifi movies are based on books not directly marketed as science fiction).

Scifi novel adaptations do happen: See Jumper, Children of Men , A Scanner Darkly, and I, Robot as recent, mostly successful examples; and Ridley Scott’s recent acquisition of The Forever War shows that there’s still a market for good scifi novels to make the jump. But Hollywood has lots of other places from which to grab their ideas.

3. Assuming that a producer is looking at science fiction novels as a basis for movies, how do they know where to look? The first place they look is where you would expect them to: The New York Times Bestseller list, since what lands there is already popular to some extent (and thus, less of a risk to promote as a movie). A second place is less obvious: Tip sheets on upcoming books, collated by companies that distribute these sheets to producers and agents. When an upcoming science fiction book gets a starred review in one of the publishing industry or library trade magazines like Publishers Weekly or Booklist, they get noted on tip sheets (I speak from experience on this one).

A third place they look is at what’s worked before: In Hollywood, nothing succeeds like previous success, which is why Philp K. Dick ( Blade Runner , Total Recall , Minority Report ) does so well. The irony of PKD — whose work did not sell hugely while he was alive — being Hollywood’s go-to scifi author while the massively successful Robert Heinlein has only a couple of lackluster flicks to his name is not lost on most science fiction readers.

What this all means for your favorite science fiction novel is that if it was not a bestseller and/or was not well-reviewed in the trades, or your favorite author doesn’t have a track record in Hollywood, filmmakers probably don’t know that the novel even exists.

4. Despite all of that, let’s say a producer loves your favorite science fiction book and secures an option to make a movie out of it. Does that mean it’s headed to the silver screen? Probably not. Unless that producer has his or her own line of financing (and most don’t), they’ll need to go to a movie studio and pitch the project. Most of the time the studio exec being pitched will say “no,” but even if he or she is interested, it just means that now the accountants will get involved and decide whether or not it makes sense for them to pour millions into the project. Again, the answer is often “no.”

Even when it is “yes,” and the movie goes into pre-production, it can still fall apart: Stars can drop out, screenplays are endlessly rewritten, studio execs are replaced… and so on. The miracle of Hollywood is that any movies get made at all.

So when you don’t see a movie based on your favorite scifi novel, don’t feel too bad. It’s not a comment on the book. It’s a comment on Hollywood.

Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also Creative Consultant for the upcoming Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.

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