A Film Deal Odyssey by Dave Zeltserman

Dave ZeltsermanBy 2005 I was barely published. My first novel, Fast Lane, had been published by a tiny micro press in the US and a small publisher in Italy, and I had two stories in magazines. I also had three finished novels, two of which, SMALL CRIMES and OUTSOURCED, I was sure would get published but my agent was getting no interest for them. Eventually all three would get published—BAD THOUGHTS in 2007, SMALL CRIMES in 2008, where it would end up topping NPR’s list of best crime and mystery novels of the year, and OUTSOURCED in 2010, but at that moment things were looking bleak and I was ready to toss in the towel . What kept me going was a phone call from my agent telling me that one of the more influential film agents in Hollywood wanted to take on Outsourced.

Over the next 3 years we had a couple of close calls. At one point it looked like we were going to get a cable series deal, at another, we had a couple of very hot screenwriters who wanted to work on it, but in both cases nothing ended up materializing. Then at the end of 2008 we got the deal. Constantin Film would finance the movie and Impact Pictures would produce it. I quickly learned there are 3 parts of a film deal that a writer needs to care about. The option price, the floor and ceiling prices. All deals have the film rights (which are sold the day filming starts) based on a percentage of the budget, so the floor price (the minimum price) and the ceiling (maximum price) are what’s most important. You’ll also get a percentage of profit, but as my film agent explained to me, writers shouldn’t expect to get anything there. A case in point, Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump, sued Paramount because at the time that Gump was the 3rd highest gross in film history, Paramount claimed there was no profit.

On the three issues that matter—option price (which is usually for 12 months and is renewable for a number of years), floor and ceiling, Constantin and Impact Pictures were very reasonable and we had those numbers worked out quickly. One clause in the contract that almost scuttled the deal was one where it gave Impact Pictures the right to do a novelization of the film if the book wasn’t published by the time filming started. I would soon work out a deal with Serpent’s Tail to publish Outsourced, but at that point I had no interest with any publisher, but I wasn’t going to make a deal that would cause my book to be thrown away. Fortunately, we were able to replace that clause with something I could live with. One other potential problem is it mucks things up if characters from the book exist in other books, which was the case with my original draft of Outsourced, but since the book hadn’t been published yet, I was able to rewrite those characters to be unique for Outsourced.

Outsourced by Dave ZeltsermanOutsourced was originally a mix of crime heist and social commentary about workers being obsoleted and thrown away in today’s world, and in 2005 when my agent tried selling the book, we had editors at William Morrow and other Big 6 houses wanting to buy it, but in each case they were shot down by their sales and editorial boards over the worry whether outsourcing would be an issue anyone cared about by 2006 when the book would be published. In order to try to get the book sold I had stripped out most of the outsourcing commentary, made it more of a pure crime heist novel, and changed the title to ’28 Minutes’ to give it more of a thriller sound. The UK publisher, Serpent’s Tail, who had bought my ‘man out of prison’ noir series, Small Crimes, Pariah and Killer, decided they wanted this one also, and was going to publish it as ’28 Minutes’ (which is why the German edition has that title), but when the film people decided they wanted to stick with the Outsourced title (which they since changed because of the ill-fated sitcom with that name), Serpent’s Tail went back to using Outsourced.

So now that I had the deal in place, the next year and a half was spent by the film people in getting the script written, which ended up being a much more commercialized version of my book. The basic story is intact, but motivations and characters are different. I understand the reason. They ‘re going to be investing a lot of money in this film, and they want to make a lot of money back. The script they have should allow them to make something comparable to The Town, while if they stuck closer to my novel they would’ve made something more like A Simple Plan. When I complained about this to one of the producers, he agreed with me but then asked how much money A Simple Plan made. As he explained to me, the movies I love, like Godfather, Goodfellas, A Dog Day Afternoon, etc., couldn’t be made in today’s film world.

So now that the film people had a script that they were happy with, and that tested off the charts with their focus groups, the next step was getting a director, and that’s where things bogged down. They had some big names wanting to do it, but for one reason or another they weren’t able to get things worked out. When the 3rd year option came around, Constantin initially walked away from picking it up because of no director yet, but the producers signed their guy shortly afterwards, and Constantin ended up picking up the option. A year later there were creative differences with the director, and we were back to square one. The option expired in February, and I was sure Constantin was going to walk away from it, but they surprised me by picking it up again. We’re going into the fifth year now, and from what I’m being told, they have a new director, and everyone involved still believes in this project and wants to see the film made. Will it happen? I don’t know. But the odyssey continues!

Dave Zeltserman is the Shamus award winning author of Julius Katz. His ‘man out of prison’ crime noir series features the novels Small Crimes, Pariah, and Killer, with Small Crimes being selected by NPR as one of the five best crime novels of 2008, and by the Washington Post as one of the best novels of 2008, while Pariah was selected by the Washington Post as one of the best novels of 2009. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Dave attended the University of Colorado in Boulder, and after graduating with a BS in Applied Math and Computer Science, returned back to the Boston area where he continues to reside with his wife, Judy. After spending 20 years developing network management software for several of the world’s leading technology companies, he now splits his time between writing crime fiction and studying martial arts, where he holds a black belt in Kung Fu. To learn more about Dave, visit his website.


  • Jack Getze

    February 6, 2014 - 7:37 AM

    Hollywood is for script writers, not novelists. Out there, the director is storyteller. Take their money and run, Dave.

  • sabrina ogden

    April 5, 2013 - 4:12 PM

    Wow… amazing. I guess this is proof that Hollywood really isn’t as easy as some would like to believe it is. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you, Dave.

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