Mining CanLit for the next hit

From Playback magazine: With more book-optioning on the horizon thanks to a CRTC pilot project, stakeholders weigh in on the do's and don'ts of bringing published works to the screen.
vivian lin (sarrazin productions) and barry jowett (cormorant books)

Vivian Lin (Sarrazin Productions) and Barry Jowett (Cormorant Books)

The CRTC sees Canadian novels as a rich source for hit TV shows and wants to ease Cancon rules on adaptation. With more book optioning on the horizon, stakeholders weigh in on the do’s and don’ts of bringing the published word to the screen. 

Producers are welcoming a CRTC pilot project aimed at stimulating TV adaptations of Canadian novels by allowing them to hire more foreign talent and still qualify for crucial tax breaks.

The program is one of several CRTC initiatives that could mitigate some of the damage caused by the commission-mandated unbundling of cable and satellite packages, which puts in doubt the future of some channels and the prodcos that supply their original programming.

“Now is a period of adjustment and chaos,” says executive producer Michael Levine, also chair of literary agency Westwood Creative Artists. Westwood holds 3,500 copyrights, including works by Canadian literary titans that are ripe for the picking.

He says he so far hasn’t noted an uptick in book options following the CRTC announcement, nor does he expect to see prices rise as a result of the new program, but, “when it settles down and people figure out where they’re going, there will be a great advantage to this.”

As part of its Let’s Talk TV review, the CRTC in March announced a loosening of Cancon rules on programs adapted from “best-selling Canadian-authored novels.” The commission proposes these scripted live-action productions be certified Canadian so long as the prodco, screenwriter and one lead performer are Canadian.

No longer tethered to the six-point CAVCO scale in order to qualify for the Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit, the new program would allow producers complete freedom to hire directors, other lead actors and key department heads from outside Canada.

Levine, who in his former role as an entertainment lawyer helped put together scores of copro deals, says this opens the door to working with some of the top U.K. producers who won’t consider a project unless a British director is attached. “I want those people as my partners. We should bring our great talent to the table and be able to let other countries bring theirs,” he says.

Levine’s recent credits include The Book of Negroes, a Canada/South Africa copro based on the award-winning novel by Hamilton, ON’s Lawrence Hill. The CBC miniseries was helmed by Toronto-based Clement Virgo.

“This doesn’t mean we won’t use Canadian directors, but it does mean we can get more Canadian literature adapted,” Levine adds.

Levine is executor for Mordecai Richler, some of whose screen rights remain available. Richler’s 1955 book Son of a Smaller Hero is being contemporized for a miniseries by producer Martin Katz, Scottish screenwriter Allan Scott and Toronto director Charles Officer.

Rights rush?
Whether the new pilot program leads to more adaptations remains to be seen, as the process can be lengthy. To minimize risk, producers often embark on a “shopping agreement” in which without payment they are allowed a window – often three to six months – to gauge interest in a property from broadcasters or funding bodies. If the producer and author/publisher choose to move forward, the producer can pay to option the script, giving them anywhere from six months to two years to develop the property.

If satisfied they can put the pieces together, the producer purchases the screen rights (toward which the option payment can be counted). The publisher and author are generally entitled to profit participation and a per-episode royalty in the case of a TV series. Levine says he has seen deals range from $1,000 to six figures depending on a book’s profile.

But sometimes passion for the source material can trump the almighty dollar. Mark Montefiore, co-president of New Metric Media, connected with Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s fictitious thriller novel The Devil You Know because of its setting during the Paul Bernardo investigation, as he grew up in St. Catharines, ON and knew family of one of the serial killer’s victims.

Communicating this to de Mariaffi enabled the prodco to win the rights over bigger companies, and it is now developing a one-hour series adaptation. “I don’t think we were offering the better deal, but we connected on a different level that may have surpassed finances,” Montefiore says.

The prodco is also developing a true-crime book ripped from the headlines that should bring a built-in audience. Again, expressing a clear vision for the material proved paramount. “It took us a year of talking with the two authors about what the deal would look like and where we wanted to take it,” Montefiore says.

He points out, however, that a book is merely a jumping-off point: “As much effort as we put into a finding a book, we put triple that into finding the right screenwriter to adapt it. If you don’t have that roadmap of how the project will unfold, then all you have is a book.”

One more tool in the toolbox
Ira Levy, president of Breakthrough Entertainment, says the freedoms the CRTC pilot project gives producers “one more tool in our toolbox,” although would be of benefit mostly to big-budget copros.

Breakthrough will soon go to camera on a MOW based on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s venerable Anne of Green Gables novel, first published in 1908. This follows numerous movies, miniseries and series based on the book since the dawn of TV.

Again, it wasn’t a “highest bidder” situation: the prodco had the inside track on the P.E.I.-set story, as Breakthrough executive producer Joan Lambur is friends with Montgomery’s granddaughter Kate Macdonald Butler, who runs Montgomery’s estate. The movie will be directed by John Kent Harrison and is scripted by Susan Coyne, both Canadians.

Breakthrough is also developing a kids series based on the works of a well-known Canadian scribe. Levy says about 50% of its kids slate originates in the publishing world, comics and graphic novels included.

But he cautions against focusing on a certain genre of book just because that’s the kind of story a broadcaster is currently airing. “By the time you get to the broadcaster, after all the time spent on optioning the book, it could be the end of that cycle,” he says. “Find material you believe in and find a great screenwriter to adapt it.”

Crime drama is such a TV mainstay that it’s no surprise mysteries and thrillers are being actively optioned. And as so many are being pitched, results are mixed. Breakthrough struck out shopping a series based on detective books by Scott Thornley, but CBC is on board for Strada Films’ series adaptation of Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee thrillers (think female James Bond), scripted by Karen Walton.

Strada’s deal with the House of Anansi Press’ Spiderline imprint was facilitated at the OMDC’s annual From Page to Screen forum, where Ontario indie publishers peddle their books to producers. The OMDC even contributes $2,000 to producers towards an option deal. More than 30 sales have come out of the meetings.

Many might not qualify for the CRTC’s pilot project, however, based on the “bestseller” stipulation. A CRTC spokesperson tells Playback that a book’s appearance on a bestseller list published by a newspaper could satisfy that criteria. But it’s not only bestsellers being eyed
for adaptation.

“Given budget realities, producers often are looking more at the content of a book,” says Janet Hawkins, consultant for the OMDC’s book-industry initiatives. “We see demand for a lot of genres, particularly character-driven mystery or crime series. In the children’s space it’s often about particular themes, such as anti-bullying, do-good and inspiring stories.”

The CRTC had as of late April yet to iron out details of the pilot project’s administration with CAVCO and funding bodies including the CMF and OMDC. The program will run at least three years before being evaluated.

“We would love to see more adaptations, so on a macro level, it’s all positive,” says Kristine Murphy, OMDC director, industry development.

“Producers are always on the hunt for great stories, and the written word will continue to be one of the best sources of inspiration for the screen.”

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2015 edition of Playback magazine