Jon James Miller is a screenwriter, novelist and frequent online presenter. His first novel, a historical fiction based on an original screenplay, will be published Spring 2015. For more information, go to: www.jonjamesmiller.com Follow Jon on Twitter @jonjimmiller.
When I attended film school, the first thing I was taught in screenwriting class was the term suspension of disbelief. Our professor ingrained in us that for any film to be successful an audience must be seduced into believing what they are witnessing onscreen as reality, in order to be entertained. “The burden,” she said, “is first on the writer to create a compelling enough universe that the audience would willingly forget their own reality.” But it wasn’t until years later when I moved to Los Angeles and began to see the realities of the entertainment industry, I began to truly understand the value of suspension of disbelief. That is, overcoming my own disbelief I could ever make it in this incredibly competitive business.
Growing up, I never had a problem believing the reality I saw in movies and on television. I willingly suspended my reality all the time, losing myself in universe after universe and often staying there long after the show ended. My imagination was such that the contact-high I got off characters and stories stayed with me, sometimes for a few hours but often days. It was only after, when I returned to my every day existence – I encountered trouble. It was the reason I wanted to get into the business of make-believe in the first place. I thought if I was the one creating these imaginary worlds, I could escape my own reality permanently.
No such luck, right? When you grow up, you realize that escaping your own reality gets harder and harder. And the harsher that reality is, the harder it can be to escape it – even for a few hours. But that is exactly what writers need to be able to do, not only to be great storytellers – but successful ones as well. That’s where the real meaning of suspension of disbelief finally hit me, as one of thousands of starry-eyed screenwriters who hit town every year: Once you truly suspend your disbelief that you’ll ever be successful in this business, every obstacle and hurdle you encounter becomes a learning experience and an opportunity.
Easier said than done, I know. But suspend your disbelief for a moment and go with me on this. From the time I first started writing, the goal had always been to be a working screenwriter. Anything less and I wouldn’t feel as if I had made it. I had willingly subscribed to the film school maxim if you wrote a great script you could throw it in the middle of the 405 and it would eventually get made. But after years of hard work, creating one original spec after another, I was getting nowhere fast. Then one day I sat back and actually looked in the trades at what was selling. I saw that out of hundreds of script sales, only a handful were original scripts. In fact, the majority of properties were based on source material from another medium, and those predominantly books by established authors. The proverbial light bulb lit up over my head. All I had to do was get the rights to a best-selling book, adapt it and all my screenwriting dreams would finally come true.
The light bulb blew and sobering, dark reality set in again. How the hell was I, a lowly, unproduced screenwriter going to convince a best-selling author to let me adapt, let alone shop and attempt to sell a screenplay based on their work? To have any chance at succeeding, I would have to suspend my own disbelief that anyone, least of all another writer, would take me seriously enough to give me a shot at their baby. All I knew was that if I didn’t believe in my own abilities, I’d never be able to get anyone else to suspend their disbelief long enough for me to share my vision with them. What I lacked in produced credits and sales, I’d have to make up for in my passion for storytelling. In my passionate, sincere conviction in telling (and hopefully selling) their beloved story to Hollywood.
I’d like to say that as soon as I had this revelation, I sold the first book I ever optioned and lived happily ever after, high-up in the Hollywood Hills. I’d like to say that, but I can’t. But what I can say is that once my reality aligned with the realities of the entertainment business, I started to get traction and make headway in my career. I discovered authors were not only willing to talk with me, but share their stories of trying to navigate the labyrinth of Tinsletown. And my ability to talk character and story structure with them, honed from years of writing my own stories, allayed their initial fears long enough for me to be taken seriously. I was learning that authors were just people like me. Albeit, people who possessed little to absolutely-no idea how to effectively market their material to the film industry.
Of course, convincing an author to give you their precious baby to offer up to the movie gods is never easy. It can take months and sometimes years to secure the rights, and that’s not even counting the adaptation process. But I’ve found that if you are dogged enough in your pursuit, not only will you ultimately prevail in getting the rights to at least a couple properties – but Hollywood will begin to take notice, as well. That’s because the one truth of the entertainment business is that no one really knows what the next big thing is going to be. Managers and producers actively acquire as much quality material as they possibly can in order to hedge their bets. True, they are your direct competition in securing viable source material to adapt. But once in a while if you show your talent and tenacity in finding this material, in tandem with the ability to successfully adapt this material for the screen – they will give you that opportunity. And an opportunity to suspend your disbelief long enough to realize your Hollywood dream is all that any of us can truly hope for.
Want to learn more about getting book rights? Sign up for Jon James Miller and Kevin Cleary's webinar - How to Secure, Adapt, and Sell Best-Selling Books to Hollywood!
Wednesday, May 11th at 1:00PM PT
At a Glance:
- Learn how to research the availability of film rights to a novel or non-fiction book.
- How to secure a shopping agreement or option to a book or book series.
- Create a successful strategy for shopping a book property to Hollywood.