12/11/2012 01:34 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2013

Ten Things Hollywood Wants in Source Material and Screenplays

Humans have always been storytellers.

Whether gathered around a campfire, painting on cave walls, writing words on dead trees or computer screens--it's in our blood. Books and other storytelling formats can be noble undertakings, capable of reaching hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of readers.

But movies are the global campfires of our time--reaching tens, sometimes hundreds of millions. When books reach this level, they do so with the aid of movies based on the books. Aside from religious texts with thousands of years to build an audience, there are no exceptions. People who don't read, people who can't read--still watch movies.

And right now, the movies people watch most are based on other things. Currently, 8 of the top 10, 16 of the top 20, and well over 50 of the top 100 highest-grossing films of all time are adaptations--of books, comics, historic events, faerytales, religious texts, poems, theme park rides, toys, songs... the list seems endless. But why were these specific stories chosen for the screen?

Most books and other properties are not movies. Some never will be. Many, however--including most books--could be movies, if skillfully adapted. And therein lies the rub: when Hollywood people (agents, managers, producers, directors, actors, studio execs and investors) look at a book, even a very good book, they see... a book. And the business of Hollywood is making movies, not books.

"Hollywood's always looking for the easiest, quickest path to the end zone," says Oscar-nominated producer Michael Nozik. "One of the first things I ask, and I'm sure every other producer who looks at a piece of material asks, is this: is this thing a movie, or is this not a movie? And is it a movie that can ever get made? Sometimes I'll look at source material and think, this could be great, but I have no idea how to make it work as a movie, the story's just too difficult to translate."

Absent a huge existing fan base, the storyteller with big-screen aspirations has two choices: create something easily translatable (a story in another medium with a movie screaming to get out), or--better yet--deliver the finished translation (an original or adapted screenplay).

The first points Hollywood toward the end zone; the second can be a touchdown pass. Of the two, the second pays better. Both approaches can work but, as Nozik says, "Studios are less willing to consider source material than finished screenplays based on the same material, and they're willing to spend more when they can see it well executed, because you're helping them get to the end zone--a finished film--quicker."

In researching Make Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood (St. Martin's Griffin, $15.99), I spoke with dozens of authors, screenwriters, producers, directors and others whose film adaptations have earned over $50 billion and scores of Academy Award nominations. I've done my best to distill their collective wisdom in the book and the Make Your Story a Movie blog.

The following is a small part of that wisdom:

Ten Things Hollywood Wants