Book-to-screen deals are reported by the Hollywood trades in pieces that dutifully mention the novelists, directors and actors involved but often leave out the people who actually made it happen — the agent or manager who hooked up the players, the producer who optioned it years ago, the book scout whose secret source shared the proposal before book publishers had even seen it.
Below are a few of Hollywood’s most important behind-the-scenes movers, shakers and connection-makers — agents, scouts, managers and execs. Not all of them toil in obscurity, but each contributes mightily to the adaptation process that puts all those pages on the screen.
SYLVIE RABINEAU AND JILL GILLETT
co-heads, WME book to film/TV
Say the words “book to screen” in Hollywood and you’re likely to hear “Sylvie Rabineau” in response. Rabineau was co-founder, with Jill Gillett, of the boutique literary agency Rabineau Wachter Sanford & Gillett. William Morris Endeavor acquired RSWG in 2016, making Rabineau and Gillett co-heads of the monster agency’s division of book to film/TV. Today the two the two co- represent (along with book agents) inimitable voices like Roxane Gay, Tom Perrotta and Elizabeth Strout, fusing taste and commerce with such zeitgeist-commanding adaptations as “The Girl on the Train,” “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” “The Leftovers” and “Olive Kitteridge.”
“By joining WME, we brought our clients more access to filmmakers, showrunners, staffing opportunities and non-scripted opportunities.” Rabineau says. Gillett adds, “The entire structure of the traditional book-to-film deal has changed. Our authors are now at the cutting edge of those deals, in the selling of their work and as producers.”
Long at the forefront of deals that attach authors to their own adaptations, Rabineau still has to fight for that deal point. “My least favorite aspect of the job,” she says, “is having to remind people that any project based on a book would not exist without that book, and that the author should be treated with the same respect as the rest of the creative team.”
Rabineau's next big deal might well involve a client she's had for years: Amanda Gorman, the 22-year-old poet who inspired a nation — along with thousands of interested phone calls from Hollywood — with her inauguration reading on Jan. 20.
agent, Verve Talent Agency
“I go after material others aren’t looking at,” says Chris Lupo, who joined Verve after a decade of scouting titles for international publishers. “There’s nothing more rewarding than finding that gem of an idea buried in a novel that’s been discounted. Proving my competitors wrong is a lot of fun as well.”
It was no accident that Lupo landed at Verve. Founded in 2010, the agency was among the first to sign the 2019 Writers Guild’s Code of Conduct, putting more information, power and money into writers’ hands. While 7,000 screenwriters were firing their agents at CAA, UTA, WME and other agencies for refusing to sign the code, Verve was expanding its support of #PayUpHollywood and other industry equity movements — along with its client list and its influence.
“Authors are the creators of their stories,” Lupo says. “They should decide how those stories are adapted. Then we can plan the best route to market, whether that’s submitting directly to producers and studios or sharing the material with screenwriters and filmmakers who align creatively.”
As an example, Lupo cites Verve’s recent six-figure sale to Lionsgate of “All This Time,” a YA novel by Verve clients Mikki Daughtry and Rachael Lippincott, authors of “Five Feet Apart,” which sold 1 million copies as a book and grossed $92 million as a film.
“Three things have changed in the past 10 years: the rise of television, the advent of streaming and the success of adaptations. ... Consumers’ expectations are constantly shifting, but the market for quality writing will always be there.”
founding partner, Haven Entertainment
In this business, it pays to start young. Rachel Miller optioned her first novel, “Deadly Games,” at age 16, using $500 of her bat mitzvah money. At 20 she landed an entry-level job at Endeavor (now William Morris Endeavor). At 23, she co-founded Tom Sawyer Entertainment with her 29-year-old bestie. When the 2008 writers’ strike hit, Tom Sawyer pivoted to developing books in-house, which it then sold to publishers before adapting them for the screen. In 2012, Tom Sawyer merged with Picture Machine to become Haven Entertainment.
“I love to find new writers and help them break into the industry so they can reach the biggest possible audience,” says Miller, who also founded the nonprofit Film2Future with the mission of “empowering underserved teenagers through professional filmmaking, content creation, education and internships.”
Haven manages 200 authors, TV writers, actors and filmmakers. “I have a much smaller list than I would in a big agency,” Miller says. “I don’t have to make decisions by committee. I can focus on the clients and projects that excite me.”
One such project was born when a friend told Miller a horrifying story from her past. “My friend didn’t want to write it herself,” Miller says. “So I took it to my playwright/TV writer client Daria Polatin. Daria had never written a novel of her own, but she did a killer job on the proposal for a novel called ‘Devil in Ohio’ and we quickly sold the book. Then Daria adapted the novel to a TV show, which we sold to Netflix.”
“Art has the power to change the world by changing people’s opinions,” says Miller, who credits “Will & Grace” with paving the way for gay marriage. “I believe we’re going to see more diverse, inclusive books adapted by more 'own voices,' so the two worlds I love so much — books and Hollywood — will look more like the world we live in.”
director of literary scouting and development, FX
Most book scouts are literary yentas, hoping to make a match, having little control over the result. Not so Megan Reid. A scout (and author) “embedded” at the FX Networks, she feeds a curated stream of books, magazine articles and podcasts to writers and directors who have contracts with FX.
Before joining the network in 2017, Reid was an editor at Simon & Schuster, then a foreign scout in a small agency. “My favorite part of every job I’ve had, including this one, is advocating for writers I love,” Reid says. “I don’t have to send a memo about a book, then never find out what happened. As an executive, I find stories that need to be told, and might not otherwise be told, and I decide what happens.”
One such deal is the pending adaptation of Octavia Butler’s beloved 1979 novel, “Kindred” — which, Reid points out, was published before she was born. “The book was brought to us by Butler’s agency,” Reid explains. She and FX developed the project from there. “Now we’re talking about potential directors. I love seeing it through every step of the process.”
Reid is one of the first Black women to break through in book scouting. “That has its challenges, but also its rewards,” she says. “I’m on the most diverse team I’ve ever been on.” But she acknowledges that especially since the George Floyd protests, “I’ve never been more tired than I am. The onus always falls on people of color to figure out what to do about race, whether that’s said out loud or not.
“Still, I feel lucky to be in the kind of job where I can say things don’t work the way I want them to. I have a seat at the table. I can change how television will look in three years. And that’s a very empowering position to be in.”
“Anyone who tells you they know what’s going to sell — that they know exactly what viewers want — is lying,” says Nathan Miller. “If you’re looking at what the trends are today, you’re behind the times.”
Miller has set novels up at Sony, CBS, Lionsgate and Paramount and sold book- and short story-based TV shows to Showtime, Amazon, Hulu and Netflix. He also represents writers who have staffed “The Chi,” “GLOW,” “Tokyo Vice,” “Hannibal” and other big shows. “When you go fishing,” he says, “the fish don’t jump into the boat. I’m on the phone all day every day, sending material out, finding interested parties, deciding who’s a creative match for each project. The goal of all this is to get projects made.”
To meet this goal in an industry built on dashed hopes and false promises, Miller maintains a broad vision of intellectual property but a laser-sharp focus on which buyer will “get” a project. He'll ask a client to write his or her screen idea as a short story, then have studios pay the client to adapt it. One client created a hit podcast for Wondery that’s now in development as a TV series — “Over My Dead Body: Tally” at HBO Max.
If Miller can really see the next big thing, what is it?
“I can’t tell you that,” he says. “If I’m right, I don’t want anyone else to know. If I’m wrong, I don’t want anyone to know that, either.”
partner, Color Force production company
Minutes after Mayor Eric Garcetti tightened shutdown orders again on Dec. 8, 2020, Brad Simpson called me from the set of “American Crime Story,” the franchise that earned him a slew of producer awards, including two Emmys.
“We’re doing what we normally do, but in PPE.” he told me. “We’re wearing masks and shields, social distancing, getting tested, being cautious.”
Simpson’s “we” is Color Force, the production company where he’s been a partner since 2012. Founded in 2007 by Hollywood powerhouse Nina Jacobson, Color Force was behind a few franchises you might have heard of: “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” “The Hunger Games,” “Crazy Rich Asians.”
Color Force has become famous for adaptations — and for keeping writers involved in them. “We don’t believe in optioning material, then saying, ‘See you at the premiere,’" Simpson says. "Unless they really want to keep living in whatever state they live in, authors can be involved in every aspect.”
Simpson’s passion for his work is almost painful to witness. “My partner, Nina, loves the chase, trying to get the author to sell to us. It puts my stomach in knots. When I feel a book is perfect for me, I’m setting myself up to get my heart broken. Even when we get a book, I feel relief and excitement for about an hour. Then I start worrying that I’m going to die if the show doesn’t get made.”
scripted television and books agent, CAA
Born in Seoul and brought to Southern California at age 9, Jiah Shin graduated from UCLA in 2015, then took the only available job at her dream employer, CAA: a shift in the mailroom. In 2019 she was promoted to agent. Now her varied roster of clients includes playwright David Henry Hwang, filmmaker Alice Wu and “Fast & Furious” director Justin Lin’s Perfect Storm Entertainment.
“I love the variety in this business,” Shin says. “There’s such a wide range in the material we can use as IP. For example, we sold an unproduced play written by Megan Chan Meinero — not to be made as a play but as a jumping-off point for a feature adaptation. Meinero turned her experience as an Asian American woman in the Western world into social satire. And now it’s going to be a feature film.”
Another recent match illustrates the way a connector can leverage the scope of an agency like CAA. While watching Season 2 of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Shin was struck by a story line about Abstract Expressionist art. As it happened, Shin and Michelle Weiner, head of CAA’s books department, were repping “Ninth Street Women,” a nonfiction book by Mary Gabriel about female Expressionist pioneers. The next day Shin walked into the office of Joe Cohen, the head of CAA’s TV department and the agent of “Maisel” creators Dan Palladino and Amy Sherman-Palladino. The Palladinos responded within minutes, and now “Ninth Street Women” is set up as a series at Amazon TV.
“As a first-generation Korean American immigrant,” says Shin, “there’s no greater feeling than seeing issues I’ve struggled with my entire life reflected in a literary medium.” That literary medium, of course, is film and TV.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.