It’s a few weeks post film festival here in Melbourne so we at Kill Your Darlings assume you’re over your film fatigue and are fit for another foray into the form. Or at least into the ways writers interact with films (apart from writing them).
In this episode, we speak to writer Anthony Morris who reviews for SBS Online, Empire Magazine, The Big Issue and Forte Magazine among others. He’s also the co-author of The Hot Guy. Then, it’s on to literary agent and consultant Alex Adsett, who pitches and negotiates film rights for the authors she represents.
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Meaghan Dew (KYD): Welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings podcast. I’m Meaghan Dew, and this is our film episode for the year, where we look at a few ways writers and screen insect. Later we’ll speak to Anthony Morris, on film reviewing. But first up we have agent and consultant Alex Adsett, talking about screen rights.
Alex Adsett: So I am a literary agent and a publishing consultant. I work for myself, I’ve got my own business up in Queensland, and as an agent, it’s a lot of reading manuscripts, it’s a lot of looking for the amazing manuscript that just wants to rock your world, and then making sure that manuscript gets to the right publisher. As a publishing consultant, I help authors who don’t have an agent negotiate their contracts, so that’s sort of my area of expertise.
KYD: So when it comes to putting those manuscripts in the hands of publishers, how does that work when it comes to film rights?
AA: Yeah, absolutely. So film rights, it’s…a lot of it is luck, basically, selling film rights – A producer going on holiday, picking up a book, loving it, and decided to make a movie. But then more and more there are opportunities for publishers and agents, and sometimes authors directly, to pitch directly to film producers. Which is, you know, obviously the focus of this podcast, because we’ve just had the Melbourne International Film Festival and for the last 10 or 12 years, they’ve been running the amazing Books to MIFF books to film pitching opportunities. So I do pitching there, and so through doing that I’ve built up contacts with film producers, which is amazing. So when I get a new book that I know a producer might be looking for, I can send it straight to them, and then as a consultant actually I’m really lucky, because I freelance for authors to help them negotiate contracts, in those really just like lightning-striking opportunities where a producer really does love a manuscript, or a book when it’s published, I can help the author, or a small publisher negotiate those deals. So I do a lot more of the negotiating of contracts than many other agents or publishers would do, because that’s my area. That’s not necessarily the pitching side of things, but that’s the negotiating the deal side of things.
KYD: When it comes to that pitching side of things, or to that reading the book the first time and thinking ‘this is one that I should be putting forward’, at which point do you feel that something might have potential for you to pitch at something like the MIFF industry events, or to one of those film industry people that you now have contacts with?
AA: It really depends, so it depends on my relationship with the producer, and… or the publisher, so, you know, the pitching, really, the rules apply no matter who you’re pitching to. But it’s just actually having a sense of what they’ve been working on, because sometimes that means they want something in a similar vein, sometimes that means they don’t want something in a similar vein. And that’s also about knowing that producer. So if somebody has just been working on a horror, say, the thing you’d immediately think is ‘oh, I’ve got other horror books, I can pitch a horror. But when I was actually starting out a few years ago, when I actually met with them in person, they were so shattered after doing the horror, they didn’t want to do another horror they were actually really open to, say, doing a rom-com or something like that. So some people will always work in the same vein, and some people really want to jump around, and once they’ve been working on a project they might want something entirely different. Some producers only want to do non-fiction, some producers want do young adult, you know, TV, some only ever do full length movies. So it’s really about knowing who’s doing what.
KYD: When it comes to the authors you represent and the type of books that you represent, you have a wide stable of set of genre fiction, you do have fantasy and sci-fi on your list, are there books where you think they would make great films or TV shows but you think, ‘no that’ll be really hard to film, or that would be too expensive to film, people won’t be interested in doing that.
AA: Look, yes, so I do represent, yes, fantasy and science fiction is a core part of my list, and while I personally might sort of look at something and go, ‘there’s no way I can think of anyone would be able to do that, it’s too big budget, or it’s too this,’ but at the end of the day, I’m not an expert in film, so I really don’t have any idea what technology is out there. Last year we sold the film rights to a Hollywood production company for Kylie Chan’s epic fantasy series that starts with White Tiger, and that’s huge in scope. You’ve got Chinese gods and demons, and it’s set in Hong Kong, and there’s huge celestial wars, but the production company that have acquired it, that’s how big their vision is. They want to do this. So I think it’s brilliant! Like, if it gets off the ground, and that’s always the next question, you know, it’s going to be as big as Game of Thrones, so I don’t ever want to be in a position where I’m the one who’s restricting what I pitch and what I talk to people about. I’m just going to talk about everything I’m excited about hope I can find someone who finds my vision and loves it as much as I do, kind of thing.
KYD: Fantastic, so I’m pretty excited about that, and as someone who loves fantasy and sci-fi myself I personally feel like the more of that there is out there, the better for me personally as a reader. But you mentioned ‘if it gets made’, and I suppose that’s really my next question – which is, in in your experience, how often does a rights sale lead to production?
AA: Oh, it’s really rare. Like it’s, you know, one in a million that you actually get an option deal, and a lot of the time you’ll hear people talking about their options – and an option just means you’ve sold the rights to a film producer to just start the thinking and developing about something. And when they exercise the rights, that means it’s actually pretty much going to happen. But I don’t know, you’ve got one in a million to actually option it, and you’ve probably got one in 100 that actually end up getting made after you’ve optioned it. So it is still really rare, and that’s that’s, I guess, when you go into it you sort of know that. Everybody wants it to happen, but the chances of it actually getting over the line are really slim.
KYD: And if it does get over the line, if something does move forward, how much control or input does an author tend to have in a production?
AA: Oh, again, it really depends, really, really depends – I mean it can come down to the contract, which is, you know, where I negotiate it – but it also comes down to the individual author and the individual production companies. Some production companies are desperate for the author to be involved. They want the author to help write the script, they want them to be part of that vision, and they want them involved every step of the way. And then other production companies, and this is more the traditional way of operating, is once the author’s signed over the rights to the book – that’s it, they’re out. They don’t really have any say, they certainly aren’t able to veto anything, they’re not able to say ‘no, no, to this character had red hair and you’ve made them a brunette,’ that kind of thing. So it’s so varied. Say with Kylie Chan’s White Tiger series, that was sold to Hollywood – that one, the producers are very much going away, they’ve hired a writer, they want to consult the author but there’s only limited input that we have with that deal. But then I’m doing another deal at the moment, which I can’t really talk about, where the author actually is going to be involved every step of the way. So they want the author to be involved in the scriptwriting, and there’s a kind of creative consultant, so that one’s…. and it’s weird, that one’s going to be a lot more lower budget, but it’s got a higher chance of happening. And the author’s going to be involved, so that’s really exciting for all of those different reasons.
KYD: Well, I think that really ties up all of my main questions for today – do you have a favourite adaptation, not that you’ve worked on ,but just that you personally love?
AA: Actually, no no, I’ve actually got an immediate answer to this one, because I’ve been talking about it non-stop for the last few months! And that’s The Handmaid’s Tale! I don’t think I’ve ever, ever seen a better book to film or book to TV adaptation than The Handmaid’s Tale, the recent TV production. It is just stunning – like, visually stunning, but also the storyline, the script, the actors – they’ve added bits to it but I think the bits they’ve added are just absolutely in keeping with the whole – I just think it’s flawless. And terrifying – but so was the book.
KYD: That was literary agent and consultant Alex Adsett, of Alex Adsett Publishing Services. You’re listening to the Kill Your Darlings podcast. And this episode is brought to you by our August book club pick, Australia Day. On our website you can listen to our interview with Melanie from Podcast 20: Short Stories Emerge, as well as reading an extract or a review. Before that, stick around for Anthony Morris.
Alright, I’m here with Anthony Morris for the Kill Your Darlings podcast, and we’re going to be talking about film criticism and reviewing. In your Twitter bio, which as we all know is the most important possible biography for a writer, it says that you’re a film and DVD reviewer ‘everywhere.’ Can I ask for some more specifics on the everywhere?
Anthony Morris: Okay – I say ‘everywhere’ because I do a lot of freelancing for a lot of places that is not regular work – so I do film reviewing, at the moment I do film reviews on SBS online, I review DVDs and streaming shows for Empire magazine, I’m the small screens editor at The Big Issue, which covers TV and TV streaming, that side of things. Then I’m the film reviewer at Forte magazine down in Geelong, since it started, which is a long, long time ago. And over the years I’ve worked for a range of other places as well, I’ve done stuff for The Vine, I was film reviewer there for a whole bunch of years, and a whole lot of other places, including Kill Your Darlings, once upon a time.
KYD: Is there anywhere you’d like to review that you haven’t yet? Because that’s a pretty extensive list there.
AD: Um, yes? But it’s difficult, because I work freelance and part of it is I go where I get paid. And so, I mean there’s places that would be wonderful to work for exposure wise, but look, as long as I have the space where I can say what I want to say, I’m quite happy to work for anybody. So, available for offers!
KYD: We’ll put that at the bottom of the podcast, in the description there. So being as you are a freelancer, you go where you’re getting paid, how much control do you have over which films you review? Are there particular genres that you wouldn’t review, because you don’t feel like they’re your forte?
AM: Well, the reviews at Forte, which is kind of the backbone of my reviewing, I do what I want to review there – and really, I review everything. We have a bit of space, and these days I usually do two reviews a week. We’re a fortnightly, so it’s four reviews a fortnight. But in the past I’ve reviewed everything, so there’s not really any genres that I wouldn’t touch, I always say that my advantage as a film critic is that I really like film but I don’t love film. I’m not one of these people that has a huge passion for a particular genre, and at this point people who know me are laughing and going, ‘what about all those terrible action movies you watch?’ Which is what I watch for entertainment. But I, look, there’s no genre that I wouldn’t have something to say about, I don’t think. But to answer the first part of your question, again, working freelance a lot of the time is, I will pitch to an editor that a film’s coming up and I’d like to review it, and they will say yes or no. There’s some, you know, if there was a film that I didn’t want to touch I wouldn’t pitch it, but generally speaking I try and pitch most things.
KYD: Just out of personal curiosity here, I know that when people are doing book reviews, part of the way they find out what’s coming up is they have newsletters from the publicity team and things like that – are you on sort of publicity team email listings for, like, distributors? Or do you just kind of keep a watch on IMDb like the rest of us?
AM: There’s a couple of ways – I do get the publicity updates from the distributors. Films are planned out really far and ahead – a lot of release dates, they have release dates slottedin for films four years from now – so usually you can, you know what’s coming up. But there’s also, I mean, most film, most cinema chain websites have a Coming Soon section that’s usually pretty extensive, and that’ll go through to at least the end of the year, and that’s often a good guide to show you what everything is coming up. And yes, sometimes on IMDb, but I mean I see so many films that I usually only look a few weeks in advance just because if I go see most things, if you’re seeing three or four films a week you don’t really want to be watching, sitting through those films going, ‘there’s a really good film in 3 months, I can’t wait for that!’ It’s like, no, you’d better watch what you watching now.
KYD: So are film reviews then something that publications slot in a bit closer to when they actually occur? Because I know a lot of things like feature articles are often set months and months in advance, but if in some cases you’re looking at films a few weeks ahead I’m guessing the schedule is slightly different?
AM: It depends, some places, they are, if you’re pitching reviews, they’ll have films they’re interested in and films they’re not. Usually it’s up to them when they’ll commission them or not – sometimes they’ll commission months in advance, sometimes a film will take off, people be very interested in it at the last minute and so they’ll shop around. A lot of the time these days reviews, film reviews are sort of folded into hot take-style articles about what a film is about, so that stuff is often kind of last-minuteywhen people will suddenly realise that, you know, ‘oh my god, Dunkirk is really a film about Brexit’ – which is a terrible example, because it’s not – but you know, that kind of thing people will suddenly catch up on. And sometimes you’ll get editors asking, after a film is released, they’ll say ‘hey, you know, people talking about this angle, do you agree, disagree, what can we do with that?’
KYD: Right, so if someone came to you and said, ‘people are talking about Dunkirk being actually a filmabout Brexit, you would say ‘I’m willing to write on that, but only to extent of writing about how wrong they are?’
AM: Well, that kind of thing is interesting – you could easily say, I mean people have argued, and there’s a case to argue – I would probably personally be more interested in saying, it’s interesting the way that film reviewing has moved towards having to be about outside issues. Dunkirk being about Brexit is one of those, but it’s a wider thing. And then often it’s relevant – films like Get Out, which was a huge deal, has clearly got a lot of political and social subtext there that lends itself to these kinds of articles. But something like John Wick 2, which I quite enjoyed, does not really lend itself to that and the things that make that kind of film better – and it’s the same with Dunkirk – are more about cinema and filmmaking than the issues that are being discussed in the film.
KYD: So when you’re reviewing a film, as much as personal enjoyment, you’re more about whether the film is doing what it intends to do well, rather than perhaps necessarily, in terms of like John Wick, like there isn’t… one of the reasons it’s entertaining is because it sets out to do something reasonably specific and that’s what it does quite well? It’s not trying to be about Brexit for example.
AM: Look, I think that’s what really gets to the core of criticism, especially film criticism – the kind of film criticism I do as well, which is sort of a consumer guide – the most important skills you have is the ability to identify what kind of film it is, and then determine if it does a good job. It’s no point, and I know there are plenty of critics, especially now when it’s… not fashionable, but it’s a good way to get attention to slag films off, who’ll just go, ‘eww, you know, a musical, musicals are awful, I hate musicals, La La Land, worst film of the year.’ Whereas I think it’s more important to be able to go, well look, it’s a musical, is it a good musical or a bad musical? Because that’s what people, I think, want from film reviews – they want you to be able to say, ‘hey, Atomic Blonde looks like it’s a spy movie, but it’s not really, it’s an action movie with spy stuff thrown in. If you like spy movies, don’t go to it, because you’ll be frustrated – because while it looks like one thing it’s really another.’ And I think you need to be able to do that, that’s what people want from a reviewer.
KYD: So in some ways you are actually the counter-argument to the trailer, which often is cut-together not necessarily to give the best impression of what is actually in the film, but to make as many people see it in a short a period of time as possible.
AM: Oh yeah, completely. It’s slightly frustrating that at the moment there’s a fashion for reviewing trailers, people will go through a trailer and go ‘this is what it shows us’, and it’s like, this is what they want to show you to make you go to the film. And that’s fine if you’re excited about the film – if you’re sitting there going ‘I’m definitely seeing the next Star Wars movie’, then of course, pick through the trailer and find out what it’s got that’s interesting to you. But the trailer is an ad for a movie, and a review is meant to say, ‘look, the ads are saying one thing, and the ads are right, or the ads are wrong.’ And there’s been, I always say if you’ve got the best movie in the world, you can make a really good trailer – if you’ve got a terrible movie, you can still make a good trailer, but they’re two different things at the end of the day.
KYD: You know, I think that almost covers everything – I was curious, though, what are you seen during MIFF, and is that the result of, do you sort of look at the upcoming program and decide the things you’d be interested in and pitch them around to various places, and then the ones you see are the ones that you’ve secured reviews for? Or are you going to see ones you are interested in, and then as they’re released more generally do you then catch them?
AM: It’s kind of a mix – generally speaking what I tend to do with MIFF is use it as a way to see films that I wouldn’t normally see, because as I said I review a lot of stuff, and I generally review mainstream things slightly more than arthouse. What I do at MIFF is I get together with Rochelle Siemienowicz, who also used to write about film for Kill Your Darlings, and she has a different kind of film taste to mine, and we go through and look at what’s interesting, and what we’re interested in, and seeing what we can see – we both work, so we have to schedule films in at times we can see them. Once we’ve done that we will sort of see what we can fit in and go to them, but yes, speaking work-wise, there is an angle of, ‘there’s a film coming up that will probably get a release later in the year, it’d be handy to see early on if I could.’ Sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t, and it’s hard to know for sure which ones are going to get a release and which ones aren’t, apart from the ones they have already announced are getting released, at which point I can probably see them sort of just as part of the regular media screening thing, rather than MIFF. So you can keep all those things in mind but it’s just it’s a combination.
KYD: As a professional film opinion having person, what’s your favourite movie?
AM: Oh, god…
KYD: It’s the worst question, I know, if someone asks me my favourite book, it’s like, ‘what do you mean? I can give you a top ten perhaps, but one?’ But I’m still going to ask for one.
AM: It’s really, it’s exactly like that – there’s so many films that I like, and for so many different reasons – it’s really difficult. I mean there are films that I’ve watched… you know, 10 times in 20 years, and just keep going back to, and get more out of them, but I wouldn’t say they were my favourite film? Gosh, I really don’t know that I have one. I mean… it’s weird as well, because I see films for work, I see a lot of different kinds of films, and there’s lots of films I see that are amazing and I love, but at the end of the day I wouldn’t watch myself for relaxation. Whereas a lot of the films that I’ll watch at the end of the week when it’s like, oh well, it’s my time to watch something, are terrible garbage films that I would not recommend to anybody! But it’s just like, I just wanna watch something where I don’t have to think too much. Or as Mel Campbell, my co-author at The Hot Guy has often said, she’s appalled that I will watch things that I actively hate, but I’m, often I’m really interested to know how films work and how stories are told, and bad films are a really good way to figure that out because you can sit there go, ‘this doesn’t work, this isn’t a good example, so gosh, I’ve given you no answer. There’s been a lot of good films this year, I mean Get Out was really good, I think that’s out on DVD soon. I really enjoyed John Wick 2 because I like action films. Dunkirk is really impressive, that’s definitely something to see on the big screen. The Big Sick is a good romantic comedy, it has some problems but it’s funny and the characters are really strong. I really like Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets but nobody else really has – it looks amazing, the story’s terrible, the lead actors have no chemistry, but just looks fantastic, and they just keeps throwing crazy stuff at you. So yeah, again it’s kinda like, if you’re going to go see it, go to the cinema – it’s worth seeing on the big screen, but it’s probably not worth seeing, if you know what I mean? If you have a friend who runs the cinema and can sneak you in for free that’d be the best way to see it, because, look, it’s important to say that Valerian has leads that have no chemistry together and the dialogue is horrible, and the story is not great, and for a lot of people that’s the end of the movie, and it’s like, ‘don’t care, you’ve told me all I need to know.’ But if you like sort of schlocky sci-fi and space opera it’s fantastic on that level, it does everything you want. I mean compared to something… I often rag on Star Wars movies a bit, though I do enjoy them, but they’re kind of basic stuff, you know what you’re getting – it’s the desert planet, the forest planet, the space battle, that kind of thing. Whereas Valerian is just crazy stuff all the way through, and it’s like, yeah, this is what I want from this kind of film – I don’t really…we have loads of other films that have great actors, snappy dialogue, but there’s no other film this year that’s going to be throwing as much crazy visual stuff at you as Valerian.
KYD: Thank you very much for your time today, this really just consolidated my desire to see the film, so you’ve done well in that sense, so thank you! And enjoy MIFF! Thank you, thanks for talking to me. That was Anthony Morris, speaking about film reviewing. Hopefully he’s inspired you to watch an awful action movie this week.
That’s all we have time for today, so on behalf of Kill Your Darlings, thank you for listening – we really appreciate being part of your day, so if we make your commute, or run or washing load a little more exciting, drop a review on iTunes for your chance to win a copy of our September Kill Your Darlings book club book. We’ll be back in a few weeks to announce the winner, but until then make sure to check in on the website regularly for new interviews, fiction, memoir and criticism.
I’m Meaghan Dew and we’ll see you next time!