What Hollywood Wants (and How to Give It to Them): Intellectual Property Adaptations

What types of screenplays are most desirable in the eyes of Hollywood insiders and decision-makers?
by Ken Miyamoto - updated on October 23, 2023

Welcome to the inaugural edition of our new limited series What Hollywood Wants, where we cover the most desired genres and types of screenplays that Hollywood is most attracted to. Each installment will cover a particular example of what Hollywood wants most in a spec script and break down the elements of each so you can learn how to write them.

This edition's topic is Intellectual Property.

Why Does Hollywood Want Intellectual Property?

The concept of pre-established content recognition in the public eye offers studio executives, marketing executives, and corporate shareholders peace of mind.

That obsession grew substantially after the one-two punch of the economic crisis and Writers Guild strike that both took place in 2007 and 2008. Multiple studio development deals that writers had for the development of original material were quickly dropped. Anything that was even a slight risk had to go. Studios have become even more risk-averse as the ripple effect of those turbulent months is still felt over a decade later.

But Hollywood has been obsessed with Intellectual Property (IP) for decades.

Most award-winning dramas are direct adaptations of best-selling novels.

  • Nomadland
  • Greenbook
  • Moonlight
  • 12 Years a Slave
  • No Country for Old Men
  • The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
  • Forrest Gump
  • Schindler's List
  • The Silence of the Lambs
  • Dances with Wolves

Read More: Pitfalls of Epic Adaptation: Why 'Dune' Was So Hard to Get Right Onscreen

Most blockbuster studio tentpoles are direct adaptations of novels, comics, and graphic novels.

  • Harry Potter
  • Lord of the Rings
  • The Hunger Games
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe

Most new screenwriting deals that you read about in the trades have some form of IP attached to them. Hollywood development desires IP embedded within their sales and acquisitions approach primarily since studios feel more comfortable with proven material.

Films based on original ideas and original spec screenplays are still very prevalent, yes. Hollywood does want original stories (just ask Quentin Tarantino).

But while the market is searching for original material, such screenplays are often used as calling cards for studio assignments for other projects.



How Do Screenwriters Benefit from Having IP-Resourced Screenplays?

Having at least one screenplay with some form of IP attached increases your odds of actually getting it purchased and made. Since we know that development executives, agents, and managers are intrigued by screenplays with intellectual property attachments, it would be wise to seek out IP you can adapt.

And such IP-based material can introduce executives, agents, and managers to your original screenplays as well. While original screenplays can be used as calling cards, IP-based screenplays can be looked upon as powerful keys into the doorways of Hollywood.

But unless you have hundreds of thousands of dollars to spare for the cinematic adaptation rights to current best-sellers and pop culture hits, you're stuck in the mud.

Not necessarily.

How Can Screenwriters Get the Rights to Intellectual Properties? 

Think again if you have dreams of writing an adaptation of Stephen King's work to sell to the studios. Yes, many know the legend of King allowing filmmakers the right to adapt his work for just one dollar. This story is dated, and it was primarily meant for student and indie filmmakers taking on some of his more obscure short stories.

If you have fantasies of writing a Batman, Superman, or Star Wars and selling it on spec, it's not going to happen. Studios that own the rights to those characters have many projects in production or active development covering the next decade and beyond. They have their writers and filmmakers tasked with developing, writing, and producing future installments.

So how can you nab some intellectual property rights that will turn Hollywood heads?

Here we share a few ways to do just that.

1. Search the Headlines and Magazines

What platform has more drama and tragedy than the news and investigative magazine articles? Yes, you can use news and magazine articles as intellectual property. Hollywood has done it many times before.

  • Top Gun was based on an article titled "Top Guns" published in California Magazine three years earlier.
  • The original The Fast and the Furious movie was based on an article from a 1998 issue of Vibe magazine.
  • The Perfect Storm was based on an Outside article from journalist Sebastian Junger published in 1994.
  • Saturday Night Fever was based on British rock journalist Nik Cohn’s "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” article in New York Magazine.

While it may be difficult for an unknown screenwriter to get the rights to articles in major newspapers and magazines, you can be creative and search deeper into the more local news or magazine articles that aren't high-profile cover stories.

Top Gun

'Top Gun'

2. Go the Inspired By Route

Screenplays don't come as loose with the term "true" as they do with stories Inspired by True Events/True Stories. These scripts take an actual event and tell a cinematic story with nearly all fictional characters and fictional macro events.

Top Gun never used the tag, but the feature was inspired by the true events (as told in the article mentioned above) of a real flight school called U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School —  or TOPGUN — formerly based at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego.

No characters within the film are based on real people. They are all fictional — as are the events portrayed in the movie. But the story and characters were inspired by the actual events of the school.

Another offshoot of this is the Inspired by a True Case tag, where an actual criminal case loosely inspires events within the screenplay.

So, if a man killed a person in a certain stand-out way — per a public criminal case —  a screenwriter could use that case as a basis for their story. If they tag the script as Inspired by a True Case, it may entice a buyer to take more interest. And, in turn, marketing a film or series as such may create more intrigue for the audience. And in the industry's eyes, that's a very loose version of intellectual property.

Look no further than the hundreds of true crime podcasts and documentaries out there for inspiration.

3. The Public Domain

The Public Domain refers to properties available for anyone to utilize, thanks to copyright expiration, copyright loss due to loopholes and mistakes, death of the copyright owner, or failure for the copyright owner to file for the rights or extension to those rights.

According to Stanford University Libraries:

Copyright has expired for all works published in the United States before 1923. In other words, if the work was published in the U.S. before January 1, 1923, you are free to use it in the U.S. without permission. For example, the man with mustache (below) was published sometime in the 19th century and is in the public domain, so no permission was required to include it within this book. These rules and dates apply regardless of whether the work was created by an individual author, a group of authors, or an employee (a work made for hire).

Because of legislation passed in 1998, no new works will fall into the public domain until 2019, when works published in 1923 will expire. In 2020, works published in 1924 will expire, and so on. For works published after 1977, if the work was written by a single author, the copyright will not expire until 70 years after the author’s death. If a work was written by several authors and published after 1977, it will not expire until 70 years after the last surviving author dies.

It's important to note that public domain characters and properties that screenwriters pursue have the danger of infringing on general trademarks from other interpretations of public domain content.

While Norse mythology characters are obviously public domain, you can't emulate Disney/Marvel's Thor character trademarks from the comics and Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. You would have to tell your own, very unique and different version of the story and character — one that doesn't infringe on Disney/Marvel's trademarks that they've established.

The Wizard of Oz

'The Wizard of Oz'

The same can be said for The Wizard of OzYou can't take what we've seen in the classic MGM film and emulate the design, and various story points specific to that adaptation.

But you can make public domain property your own and expect surprising interest from studios if your take is unique and intriguing — something that hasn't been done before.

Case in point, Hollywood screenwriter Jason Fuchs and his Peter Pan prequel pitch. Fuchs spoke to ScreenCraft years ago on the subject.

"Right before the summer of 2013 I had a general meeting with an executive at Warner Brothers named Sarah Schechter, and she said in that meeting, 'If you could write anything next, what would it be?'

And I said, 'Anything?'

And she said, 'Yeah.'

I then told her that I've got this Peter Pan prequel that I don't think you're going to do because no one else seems to want to, but it means a lot to me and this is what it is.

I pitched it and she said, 'Oh, we'll do that.'

So they bought it. Suddenly we had a studio and a producer and I wrote it quickly in the summer of 2013."

While the eventual film didn't perform that well at the box office, it was made. And the studio jumped at the chance to take on the IP available in the public domain.

Tread cautiously, mind you. When it comes to the legalities of what you plan on doing with anything from the public domain, proceed with caution. Make sure your take on the IP hasn't been done before. Make it exciting and different.

Consider taking some time to explore some of those properties in the public domain. Perhaps you can create a hybrid of originality mixed in with a story and character that audiences — and those in Hollywood — are already familiar with.

Not sure which property to choose? Here are the hottest public domain properties for screenwriters.

4. Target Lesser Known Novels, Comics, Graphic Novels, Short Stories, etc.

In this day and age, with indie publishers and self-published material on Amazon and beyond, finding intellectual property is as easy as it ever has been.

You can take proactive measures, do your research, and find intriguing IP. When you connect with authors and smaller indie publishers that aren't in the sights of the major studios and production companies, you can find more accessible ways to partner with IP for screenplay adaptations.

  • Go to writing conferences to find novels and short stories.
  • Go to Comic-Cons to connect with indie comics and graphic novels.
  • Search Amazon's e-book catalog of self-published works.

Read More: How ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ Echoes Martin Scorsese's Previous Films

Dances with Wolves

'Dances with Wolves'

5. Go the Dances with Wolves Route — Write the Book Yourself!

A prime example is Dances with Wolves. The late Dances with Wolves author Michael Blake originally wrote the story as a screenplay in the early 1980s. He later worked with Kevin Costner on the 1983 film Stacy’s Knights. Blake was staying over at Costner’s house early on in his career when he read the Dances with Wolves script. Costner and eventual Dances with Wolves producer Jim Wilson agreed that no studio would produce it despite its worth. They recommended that Blake write it as a novel and get it published — and then work to use a reader base to entice studios to adapt it for the screen.

Blake did just that. It was first published as a paperback and sold primarily in airports. It soon became a bestseller, allowing Kevin Costner himself the chance to obtain the rights later, knowing that the film adaptation would get the necessary studio distribution. The rest is Oscar-winning history.

Dances with Wolves was a screenplay first, as was Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. If Hollywood isn't responding to your story, and you genuinely believe that it is a story that should be told, look elsewhere. Think beyond standard practices.

Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.

He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed starring Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman, Wesley Truman Daniel, Mickey O’Sullivan, John Victor Allen, and James Errico, as well as produced and upcoming Lifetime suspense thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies

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