If you're planning to turn a book into a screenplay or film, and the material is under copyright (as opposed to being in the public domain), you will need to acquire the film rights to adapt the material. A writer/producer cannot legally even develop a script without first acquiring the rights from the copyright-holder.
Finding the Rights Holder
Subsidiary rights, which includes film rights, are almost always retained by the author (not the publisher) and can be negotiated through the author’s literary agent (or directly with the author if he or she does not have representation).
Most authors list the name of their agent in the acknowledgements section of their book, but a simple Google search can also quickly reveal the literary agent's name and contact information.
The Option Agreement
The agreement between the copyright-holder and the writer/producer, which grants the initial and exclusive, but limited, adaptation rights for a set period-of-time, is known as an "Option".
It gives the writer/producer the option-to-purchase the rights, usually upon a specified date or action (often before the option expires, or upon sale of the script or commencement of production).
An Option Agreement provides the writer/producer an opportunity to develop a screenplay and set up financing to eventually produce a film, without having to incur the high cost of purchasing the rights prior to making a sale or having funding in place.
The fee for optioning film rights varies widely, depending on the popularity of the book.
A little-known self-published book may be optioned by a writer/producer for as low as $1 while a bestseller could cost the median price of a home.
The purchase price to exercise the option (to own the rights, which you will need to make the film) is often 3% to 5% of the film budget with a pre-established minimum and maximum fee outlined in the Option Agreement.
Some writers/producers may choose to opt for a Shopping Agreement or Producer Attachment Agreement with an author instead of using an Option Agreement to option the film rights.
These alternate agreements grant the writer/producer the exclusive right to "shop" the story to studios or production companies for a specified period of time.
Once the writer or producer sells the story/book to the studio or production company, the author of the book is paid directly by the buyer for the film rights and the writer/producer who sold the story is then attached as the screenwriter or producer of the film which will be developed.
The benefit of negotiating a Shopping Agreement or Producer Attachment Agreement with an author, instead of an Option Agreement, is that a writer/producer can minimize or even eliminate the initial financial investment normally required for optioning a book.
The drawback is, without the Option Agreement, which grants initial adaptation rights (and unless those rights are incorporated into the Shopping Agreement or Producer Attachment Agreement), a writer cannot develop a screenplay from the book until the story is sold to a production company or studio.
For an un-produced screenwriter, approaching an undiscovered author with a little-known (but high quality) book, may be the best choice for negotiating a low-cost Option Agreement and acquiring the rights to adapt the material into a screenplay.
There are many talented but unknown authors who would love to have their books discovered and turned into a film. There is plenty of opportunity for writers and producers to discover the next great book waiting to be adapted.
Additional Resources from the Copyright Office: