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Erin Hennicke, Film Scout, Part 2

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Erin Hennicke, Film Scout, Part 2

Some of our favorite movies were books first, from The Hunger Games to The Godfather. But have you ever wondered how that transition happens? 

Well, it starts with people like Erin Hennicke --- a film scout at Franklin & Siegal Associates. As Erin explains, it's a film scout's job to "cover the publishing waterfront" in New York City --- reading books and magazines and talking to agents to figure out what might make a great movie, and then reporting back to film studios in Los Angeles.

Below you can find Part 2 of our interview with Erin, where she talks about how she knows if something would make a good movie or TV show, who she'd cast in every movie if she had the choice and her favorite book-to-screen adaptations.

Click here if you missed Part 1, and be sure to look out for Part 3 next Wednesday, November 19th. 


SZ: If you find a project that you’re really interested in, how do you pitch it to your clients?

EH: Some scouts kind of beat the drum for everything, like “This book is hot! Everyone is paying attention to this!” I don’t do that.I don’t want to be the scout who cried wolf. I really pick and choose what I’m going to push, because if I push something that the studio is just kind of “meh” about, it’s just going to sit there. They’re going to have spent all this money on it and it’s not going to have the momentum to move forward.

So I definitely want to encourage projects that have legs, ones that are definitely going to get made. So I tell my execs, “I know we have a ton of material this week, but just take time out of your day and read this; I think this is really great.” And for the one I just talked about, I knew that the exec was going to get the official submission from the agent, so I said, “Make sure you read it --- top of the list.” And I don’t say that for many things. So I think they knew, “OK, she’s really being a cheerleader for this.”

It’s also good if there’s a way to make them see it --- if you mention casting possibilities or writing possibilities. I might say “Oh, this might be something for Paul Greengrass” or something like that --- it helps them visualize it all the more.

And the best way to get somebody interested is to give them “The Elevator Pitch” --- the shortest pitch --- but it’s the one that’s gonna grab them. You want to grab their attention right away.

SZ: So, who exactly are you pitching at Universal? Producers? Execs?

EH: I’m hired by Universal Studios, so I deal with the studio and the movie execs on a daily basis, everyone from the Chairwoman on down. I do a daily memo for them and give them all the information that I have. And I can talk to anyone over there, exec-wise.

I don’t want to be the scout who cried wolf. I really pick and choose what I’m going to push.

I know the producers and I talk to the producers a lot, but I’m not employed by them. They’re kind of in competition with each other. It’s good if I know them and I know what they’re looking for because then I can keep it mind, and tell the execs, “Didn’t Imagine say they wanted a project like this?” But ultimately, the execs are my bosses, and they might see a piece of material for that producer and not this one. So it’s very politically dicey. So to stay out of that, I say, “I’m friends with everybody. I want to know what you’re looking for, but I can’t give you material; I deal with the studio. I’m hired by them.”

SZ: Can you tell me more about the daily memo? How much information is in there?

EH: It can be anywhere from two to seven pages; it really depends. Now’s a busy time because of the Frankfurt Book Fair, and it’s a busy time for books in general --- new books coming up and going out.

I have it structured with an “update” section and a “new” section. For the update section, I talk about books that I may have already reported but now are going out officially, or that have sold to a publisher or have people interested in them. The “new” section features books that I’m telling them about for the first time. And sometimes, I’ll tip them off to a book that I know is not a movie, it’s so not anything, but it’s just something to be aware of, like the Neil Patrick Harris autobiography. I’ll say, “He’s writing an autobiography and here’s how he’s going to structure it. It’s not a filmic opportunity but just something to know about.”

SZ: You work in TV, too. How do you decide if you’re going to pitch something as a movie or TV show?

EH: It’s so funny because now more than ever, TV is taking such creative chances, with “Orange is the New Black” and “House of Cards” and the redo of Fargo and all that stuff. And A-list talent want to do TV because it’s “True Detective” and programming like that.

When I’m doing TV, I’m always thinking, “Could this sustain five seasons?”...Is it something that you’d want to tune in again and again to see?

So Paramount is definitely looking for stuff like that. But when I’m doing TV, I’m always thinking, “Could this sustain five seasons?” It doesn’t have to have all five seasons spelled out, but is there enough material here that we can make this series last? Is it worth it? Is it something that you’d want to tune in again and again to see? Are there parts that A-list talent is going to want to commit to? Because it is a commitment --- it’s a longer commitment than a movie --- so it has to be something that’s noteworthy. The writing has to be stellar; it has to attract a lot of people.

So I’m always thinking good parts, good writing and could this sustain over a period of time.

SZ: Once you’ve sold something to Universal or Paramount, do you have any involvement with the material after that stage, in terms of casting or script?

EH: No, and that’s kind of the bummer part. They keep you posted and let you know what’s going on, and I can ask for updates at any time. I just asked about the status of one book, and they said “Oh, we just got a first draft of the script.” So they’ll tell me and keep me posted, but it’s not like I can say, “I think blah blah blah should be in it.”

Which probably would not be that great, because I’d put Jon Hamm in everything. And I’d say, “I have to be on set, I hope you don’t mind.” And they’d say, “You’re pushing Jon Hamm a lot! What’s up with that?”

I might make suggestions, but once they get it, it’s their baby, if they say yes or they say no.

SZ: Has there ever been something you really wanted that didn’t work out?

EH: There was one book I remember pushing really hard years ago, but at the time, they weren’t doing horror. I remember the exec going, “I know that you love it, I get it, but it’s just not for us. It’s perfect for another company, but it’s not our thing right now.”

It can happen a lot, so you just have to kind of roll with it and be like, “OK, they don’t think it’s right for them. They know. They’re there. They’re in the studio every day --- they know better. They do this all the time --- I’m out on the book side.”

So you just move on and don’t really take it personally at all. You just go, “OK, we’ll find something else!”

And that’s the whole thing about being a scout: Every time you sit down to read a piece of material, in your mind you’re thinking, “Could this be the next big thing? Could this be the next Harry Potter?” You always have that kernel of hope. And I’ve always told myself, “When that goes away, and you sit down and think this is probably going to be terrible, you should probably stop scouting.” You should always sit down and think this could be amazing! You should always have that feeling. When you lose that, you should move it on down the highway.

SZ: When you sell a book to Universal, how long does it take for it to be made into a movie?

EH: It’s different in every case. Some options are 12 months, some are 18 and some are longer. Some things get made really quickly because it’s of a timely nature --- like The Fault in Our Stars happened very quickly for Fox because someone over there had the sense of “Enough with the dystopian.” And they 

 

knew there was such a huge fan base for it, so they acted quickly and got it made very quickly. And if there’s something of a timely nature in the news, you want to move quickly on it.

But that article that inspired American Gangster --- that took eight years, from optioning to seeing it as a movie.

 

SZ: What percentage of books that you pitched have actually become movies?

EH: It’s a pretty small percentage! I’d say out of 100 books, maybe 12 get optioned, and of that 12, three get made. It’s slim.

And there’s a variety of reasons books will get optioned but not made --- “We got this for this actress but now this actress has a deal somewhere else” or “We got this for this exec but this exec left and the project stayed here and we need someone to shepherd it.” Or taste in movies changed. It really depends.

So to any writer friend of mine who gets an option, I say, “Take that money and do something very good with it. Think about it like it’s the only money you’re going to see, and just be happy with that.” If it happens, that’s amazing, but you don’t have any control over what happens, so think, “My book is my baby, and that might be a distant relative. It’s not mine, I didn’t do it.”

SZ: Are there any book to film adaptations that you’ve seen that you’ve really loved, or ones that you especially don’t like?

EH: People always say, “The book’s so much better, the book’s so much better.” There are so many examples, I think, of great books where the movie kind of ratcheted it up a couple notches. The example that everybody uses is The Godfather. And that’s a great piece of material that was made even greater by Coppola’s movies (the first two).

But I love the example of THE SWEET HEREAFTER by Russell Banks, where it was a very compelling novel based on a true story, but it was told from different points of view very simply. And Atom Egoyan, in his adaptation, added a whole other layer of the Pied Piper story --- he kind of had it interspersed in the narrative. And the way it was shot, and the writing (which I think was the most creative part of it) blows you away. I thought it was a great book, but he made it an amazing movie with so many more layers that I never would have thought of. So I always use that as a benchmark, like, “They did a great job with that.”

And then there are books that I consider very light, even though they’re successful, like THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY [by Robert James Waller]. I remember when I read that book, I thought, “Why is everybody going crazy over this book? It’s very simple.” But the movie was really well done!

And there are so many that I can’t wait to see. Universal’s doing UNBROKEN, which comes out at Christmas. When you read that book, you think, “I will never complain about anything in my life again.” Everything in my life --- complaining about the F train and all that --- is petty compared to what this man endured. So it really slams your priorities into order when you read that book and see what that man went through. And I just can’t wait to see that on the screen. The trailer looks amazing.

And it’s just such a compelling story. And you’re thinking, “Why wasn’t I taught this in school? This is amazing!” So that will be great to see.

SZ: Were you the scout for UNBROKEN?

EH: Actually they had his life rights since the 1950s, way before it was going to be a book! And they had many incarnations of the movie, including one in the ‘90s with Nicolas Cage attached. And then Laura Hillenbrand wrote her book and Universal optioned that --- they had also done SEABISCUIT with her --- so they kind of just wanted to fold that into what they already had.

SZ: Can you tell us about some of the projects that you’ve worked on that you’ve been the most excited about?

EH: There are so many, and again, the process of development can take forever. But they optioned the YA book PANIC by Lauren Oliver, which I cannot wait to see. I remember reading PANIC and saying, “It’s a low-tech THE HUNGER GAMES written by Richard Russo” --- upstate New York, bleak. It’s contemporary but the world takes place in a heightened reality, and participating high school seniors have to endure a series of events, and whoever wins gets money to get out of the town. Because if you’re stuck in the town, you better want to make or sell meth, because that’s all you’re going to be doing! It’s a very dead-end town. A group of friends decide to compete in these games in order to get out, and if one wins, they’re going to split the money. When I read that, I just thought, “Oh my God --- this would be so great because it wouldn’t take a huge budget yet it has that feeling of THE HUNGER GAMES behind it.” It’s at the script stage. They optioned it last year and just got a first draft. They’re very excited.

I remember reading PANIC and saying, “It’s a low-tech THE HUNGER GAMES written by Richard Russo.” 

Every single one of Lauren Oliver’s books has gotten optioned, but none have made it to the screen yet.

SZ: Do you work with adult books and YA?

EH: Yes, and it’s a whole new world. When I first started scouting, it was just in the wake of the Harry Potter books and movies being a huge hit, and at that time, kids was about one-eighth of the books we reported. Now I’d say it’s probably half or slightly over half. It’s a lot --- there’s a lot of kids and YA stuff.

SZ: Are there any other YA ones that you’ve recently optioned?

EH: They already had optioned a few, including the middle grade DRAGONOLOGY [by Dr. Ernest Drake]. And they have DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE. One exec was super passionate about it and fought hard for that book. A lot of other people wanted it and we got it, so we have to make sure we live up to it.

SZ: Are there any other specific books that you’ve read recently that you’re particularly enthusiastic about?

EH: I read a book that’s coming out next year, FATES AND FURIES by Lauren Groff, which is phenomenal. I raved about it to my guys, but with the caveat of, “The most compelling thing about it is the writing, and that doesn’t translate.” And that was a look at a marriage over a great number of years. It’s in different sections, and the first section is the couple meeting in college and getting married at 22, and everyone thinking it’s gonna fail. You see their marriage through different parties they have (a Halloween party, a New Year’s party), and you get little pieces of information, but there are great gaps in the story. The last part is going back and filling in those gaps. And you’re like, “Oh, that’s why that guy was such a jerk,” but that’s in the writing. I loved it, though.

SZ: So are you more focused on plot and characters, then, when thinking about making books into movies?

EH: Yes. Writing’s great, but again, unless the author’s going to do the screenplay, it’s tough. The story has to stand on its own; the characters have to stand up. You think, “Is this going to be a challenge for an actor? Would an actor want to play this role? Or would an actor be like ‘nah, I’ve already done that.’” You want something that will be a really truthful, great role for somebody. People will come to you if you have everything. They’ll say, “Oh, you have that book? I love that book. I want to be involved.”

The grounding force is always the material. If you have the material, people will come to you.

And some books not so much --- some books are a tough slog to get set up and cast, and all that stuff. But I think the grounding force is always the material. If you have the material, people will come to you.