It had been a long time since a book's characters made me almost forget they were fictional and inspired in me a desire to be a part of their world. As I read Something Like Summer recently, I kept thinking what a compelling film this unique coming-of-age story whose two central characters happen to be gay would make.
When I finished reading it, I looked up author Jay Bell's website and discovered that a screen adaptation of the book was already in the works. Blue Seraph Productions, the company behind the 2011 festival favorite Judas Kiss, had begun initial fundraising through a Kickstarter project, going directly to the movie's future audience. That grassroots fundraising platform generated headlines recently when the makers of the movie Veronica Mars raised over $2 million in less than a day.
So, thanks in part to the financial support of many devoted readers of Something Like Summer, there will be a movie, though much more fundraising needs to be done first. What is even more unusual in this case is that, not only is the film being made possible by its future viewers, circumventing traditional methods in the movie business, but Bell also bypassed established routes in the publishing industry by self-publishing his book. That hasn't prevented it from ranking among the top-selling gay-themed books on Amazon, with over 200 reviews, most of them positive.
In fact, Bell has written several books, and they are all self-published through the Amazon subsidiary CreateSpace. So the readers who bought his earlier books essentially helped him write Something Like Summer.
Bell actually tried to find a traditional publisher for Something Like Summer, but the only thing that search did was waste him two years. "One publisher was interested and said their test readers loved it," Bell recalled. "They asked for two small changes, which I made. When I followed up with them months later, they politely told me the book was boring. I didn't let this discourage me."
Spanning more than a decade, the story in Something Like Summer has engaged many readers emotionally, judging by the reviews -- they call it "inspiring," "heartbreaking" and "thoughtful." Central to that story is the relationship between the main characters, Ben Bentley and Tim Wyman, which begins with a secret affair in high school and is cut short after a year by Tim, who refuses to come to terms with his sexuality. When he finally does and realizes that Ben is the love if his life, he works hard for a second chance.
"The reader response has been fantastic," said Bell, a 35-year-old Kansas native who fell in love with a German exchange student in college and moved with him to Germany, where he still lives. Bell's husband, Andreas, has created the covers of all his books. "The readers who enjoy the book have been very motivated to share copies with friends or post their reaction on social media sites. I have no doubt that such word-of-mouth has been crucial to the book's success."
It was one of Bell's readers who urged him to pursue a screen adaptation, and even offered to use the limited connections he had from a "fleeting experience with the movie industry when he was younger" to help make that happen, Bell said. He resisted for months, until he saw Judas Kiss, which he had "followed through fundraising and development" from a distance. He decided that those filmmakers were the team he could trust to turn his book into a movie.
Director J.T. Tepnapa and screenwriter Carlos Pedraza didn't need much convincing. "I read Something Like Summer and fell in love with the characters," Tepnapa said. "Jay's novel spoke to me so personally. I was a gay kid in a small town where it wasn't always safe to be gay. Like so many of us, my first stabs at love were clumsy and left me feeling lonely."
Pedraza said that one of the reasons he wanted to adapt the book was that "it presents a huge creative challenge," including a large cast, many locations and several original songs. Blue Seraph Productions is co-producing Something Like Summer with Seattle-based Jade Knight Productions, which optioned Bell's novel, Pedraza said. The screenplay has been "locked down," he added. "We hope to attract enough investors in the next few months to allow us to go into production in the fall. In the meantime, we'll be moving ahead with pre-production. That includes casting the lead roles, securing locations and hiring the creative team."
Bell said he was asked for feedback during the writing process and provided it, though he is happy to let the film professionals do their job.
Even after learning about the upcoming movie, Bell's readers still wanted to spend more time with Ben and Tim, and kept asking the author for a sequel, he said. He resisted, saying that "happy couples are boring." Thanks to those readers' persistence, he found a way to bring his characters back without compromising his principles -- since Something Like Summer was told from Ben's perspective, Bell wrote a "companion book" from Tim's point of view and called it Something Like Winter. It has already received rave reviews on Amazon.
So who needs traditional publishers and big movie studios?
"The digital age is definitely changing how artists get their material to the audience, and it's a very exciting time to be in the business," Bell said.