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Adapting A Book Into An Animated Film: 5 Issues To Consider


Sound waves almost as powerful as the “fee fi fo fum” yelping of a fairytale giant travelled across the media industry in April. This was the reverberation to the exciting news that renowned film director Steven Spielberg is to direct a live action feature of Roald Dahl’s much loved children’s classic “The BFG”.  First published in 1982, The BFG is the story of an orphan girl Sophie, who befriends a big friendly giant. Spielberg’s production company, DreamWorks reportedly acquired the film rights to The BFG in 2011.

Filming is forecasted to start in early 2015 with a 2016 release date to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Roald Dahl’s birth. The parties have kept relatively “stum” on the cinematography of the live action  i.e. will it be a feature where humans co-exist with cartoons as in Mary Poppins or Space Jam or a feature that uses CGI Technology as in Scooby-Doo. Irrespective of the actual form of Spielberg’s take on The BFG and whether it includes any elements of animation, the adaptation of classic children’s books to animated features remain an attractive trend we are all too familiar with. J.M. Barrie’sPeter Pan,  Theodor Seuss Geisel’s (better known as Dr Seuss’) The Lorax and of course the 1989 made-for-TV adaptation of The BFG are just a few examples.

The announcement of Hollywood’s hands on the BFG, makes it ample time to consider the BFG to adaptation aka The Big Five Gateways to adaptation. Below you will find listed 5 key issues (from a legal perspective) animators or producers hoping to adapt a book into an animated feature will need to consider.

  1. Who owns the book rights? You should not assume that the author owns the rights. You should carefully research who owns the rights to the book you want to adapt. It could be the publisher, the author, the estate of the author or another third party altogether. It is important to get this right as it is only the owner of the rights that can give you the permissions you need to make the film/TV show.
  2. Obtain the option to the book from the owner. An option is when you acquire the exclusive right to purchase the film/ TV rights (or other specified rights) to a book at some time in the future. Options are usually exclusive for a period of time. Typically 12-18months (although the length of an option period is a commercial point). Please note that a producer that options a book has not purchased the right to adapt the book into a film/TV show. The Producer has just acquired the exclusive choice or “option” to adapt the book to a film/TV show during the option period. Therefore, during the option period, no other producer has the choice or “option” to get the book adapted. Many producers acquire the option to adapt a book in the first instance since option fees are generally considerably less than the fees payable for purchasing film/TV rights. An option therefore buys the producer time. Time to see if it can source finance, screenwriters, animators, technicians,  directors etc before committing itself to the project by purchasing the film/TV rights.
  3. What do you need? Think about all the rights you need to obtain from the owner. Do not be too linear in your approach. The owner of the book rights will probably only want to give you rights relating to the adaptation of the books to an audiovisual feature for TV or film. However, you should consider carving out for yourself other rights ancillary to adaptation of the book to a film or TV show. For example, who will hold the merchandise rights and further novelisation rights?
  4. Think about life after the feature. It is a growing Hollywood trend to make spin offs, sequels and prequels of successful films. Rio, Madagascar, and Ice Age are just a few examples. You should consider obtaining the right to sequels, spin-offs and prequels etc from the rights owner at the early stages of  your negotiations.
  5. Watch out for turnaround provisions- The owner of the rights will probably want a turnaround provision to be included. These usually apply where you have purchased the film rights. Such provisions provide that if you are unable to get the film/TV show made within a specific time, the owner has the right to buyback its film/TV rights from you. You should make sure that if a turnaround provision is included, you are given a realistic time to try and make the film. Also, you should make sure that the original owner buys back the rights for a sum which is not less than what you paid for them in the first place.

Hopefully, the above will get you thinking on how to finally turn …….into a film!

[Please note that the content of this article is the writer’s opinion and does not constitute legal advice by Skwigly and/or the writer to you. If you require further information on the content of this article, you should contact the writer directly or seek your own legal advice]

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