Brent Sells Another Movie Project! (How Did it Happen? He Worked His ASS Off!)

I’m very excited to announce that the movie version of my 2007 novel Project Sweet Life is now in pre-production, and will film next year (in 2019) — based on my screenplay.

SweetLife336491.jpg

I’m also proud of the fact that this never would have happened without a very deliberate strategy on my part.

Here’s what the movie is about:

Project Sweet Life (Family/Caper): When three teen friends are forced by their parents to get summer jobs, they decide to invent fake jobs, then embark on a series of get-rich-quick schemes to make the money they should be earning. But the “sweet life” proves much more difficult than anticipated.

Here’s the God’s honest truth about books being turned into movies: producers do look for books that they think will make good movies. But mostly, they look at hit books, or books with some other built-in publicity angle: big award-winners, New York Times bestsellers, or books by celebrity authors. The thinking is that the book’s success proves that the story “works,” and also that the film might be able to capitalize on some of the book’s publicity or cultural buzz.

Plus, there are zillions of books in the world, and it stands to reason that producers would mostly consider the titles that are right in front of their faces.

Geography Club, my first novel (in 2003), was a big hit, and it received at least a dozen offers from movie producers over the years. It was under option with a string of different producers over a six-year period. At one point in the mid-00s, it almost became a $15 million movie directed by Kenny Ortega of High School Musical fame. Perhaps it could have been Love, Simon, ten years before that movie broke out. But the big movie deal fell through at the last minute. Later, the project ended up with some indie producers, who finally got it made, in 2013, at a considerably lower budget. To my disappointment, they didn’t use my screenplay (which, ahem, had already won several awards).

Still, I loved the whole book-to-movie experience, which was great for my career even if the movie wasn’t a hit, and I learned a lot along the way.

Things are very different for books that aren’t break-out successes. Project Sweet Life, released in 2007, got good reviews. But it was an “orphaned” book (where the editor left six months before publication, and the book had no editor at all for much of that time). The book sold okay, thanks to my very loyal fans, but HarperCollins never even released it in paperback.

The book received zero inquiries from movie producers, and I doubt my agent at the time pushed it very hard. Agents are like everyone else: they naturally give most of their attention to their hit books too.

The view from the set of Geography Club, the movie, in 2012.

The view from the set of Geography Club, the movie, in 2012.

The upshot? For an author, having your book turned into a movie is a pretty passive process. Sure, the author plays a role in writing the best book they can — and maybe determining whether the book is a hit. But in most cases, producers are either interested, or they’re not. It’s all out of the author’s hands.

Still, I always thought Project Sweet Life would make a terrific movie. A caper film with teenagers? And it also served what I thought (and still think) is a very under-served demographic: the lower YA readership — books written for and about actual younger teenagers.

So I wrote my own screenplay based on my book. The truth is, I loved this process, because it gave me a chance to correct all the flaws I’d since seen in the story. This time around, I also got a chance to guarantee that I’d get to write the screenplay (which, frankly, is extremely unusual in Hollywood. The conventional wisdom is that authors are too close to their books to successfully adapt them themselves. For what it’s worth, in most cases, I think Hollywood is right.)

Anyway, after writing the screenplay, I pitched it to producers myself. I listed it on different screenwriting websites, and I entered it in contests (where it did well). I ferreted out producer leads and made inquiries. Over the years, I also revised the screenplay a few times, based on the notes I’d been receiving.

I never mentioned the screenplay was based on my book. Since the book hadn’t been a hit, I figured that information would do more harm that good. The screenplay, I decided, could speak for itself.

Two years ago, one particular producer liked my pitch, and he liked the screenplay even more. He optioned the script, and together, we honed the story further. Meanwhile, he and his partners secured the necessary funding, and now the movie is getting made.

Basically, I didn’t accept the industry status quo, where the possibility of a movie adaptation is almost entirely out of the author’s hands.

Would I recommend this strategy for every novelist?

The fact is, screenwriting is a very, very specific art — much more specific than writing a novel, IMHO. And it’s also hard as hell — even harder than writing a novel, I think. A novelist writing a screenplay is like a musician learning to play the saxophone at an expert level after first perfecting the piano. So writing your own screenplay isn’t for novelists who don’t want to devote years of time to learning this insanely difficult and very specific craft.

This strategy also isn’t for authors who hate doing publicity. Because writing the screenplay is just the start. After that, you have a sell the damn thing. And the audience you’re publicizing your product to, movie producers, is even more indifferent — maybe even outright hostile — than a general book-buying audience.

Then again, how badly do you believe in your book? And how badly do you want to see it turned into a movie? Are you willing to move heaven and earth to see it happen?

I was, and I did. And now I’m really glad.

So much so that I’ve done the same thing to another book of mine — my 2006 puzzle box thriller Grand & Humble. And I’m completely convinced it’s only a matter of time before I get that one turned into a movie too.

P.S. To be clear, I worked hard on this project. But the optioning producer worked harder. I don’t know anyone who works harder than movie producers!