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When publishers meet producers: Connecting Scottish literature and screen

It's a Tuesday afternoon at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and Canongate's Publishing Director Francis Bickmore is reminiscing about a key moment in his publishing life.

"My boss dropped a manuscript on my desk," he says, "about a boy, a tiger and a boat. I remember, I literally read it in one night."

He's referring, of course, to Life of Pi: the Man Booker Prize-winning, international bestseller from author Yann Martel (published by Canongate in 2001). Bickmore describes the success the novel had in vivid detail: it won critical acclaim and sold millions of copies. The boy, the tiger and the boat are now famous worldwide.

In 2012, the story was adapted for screen (directed by Ang Lee), taking its success to another level. The screenplay was written by David Magee, and the feature starred Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan and Rafe Spall. It went on to make over $600 million worldwide, and earned a fistful of Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations, to boot.

Where there's so much opportunity for screen content, books provide a great foundation for the story- Claire Mundell, Synchronicity Films

The success of the film saw book sales boom again, and is a key example of how well production and publishing can work in harmony. The key to that symbiotic relationship is clear. As Bickmore says, "it's about telling stories for contemporary audiences."

And of course, good stories are ripe for adaptation.

Speaking at the event with Bickmore was Synchronicity Films' Founder and Creative Director Claire Mundell.

Last autumn, Synchronicity's production The Cry aired to critical acclaim on BBC One. Starring Jenna Coleman and Ewen Leslie, the psychological thriller was adapted from the novel of the same name by Helen FitzGerald.

Mundell described the creative process as "collaborative", whilst signalling the importance of the "handover moment" between author and screenwriter (The Cry was adapted for screen by Jacquelin Perske). "It's quite rare for an author to adapt the work themselves," Mundell says. "At a certain point the screenwriter has to be allowed to run with it and make it work for them."

Both Bickmore and Mundell agree that an author is more likely to be a creative consultant than the screenwriter.

At the event, Mundell also spoke about the huge advantages of adaptation. "As a producer, we're usually driven by passion for the story, for character, for world," she explains. "A key benefit of doing that from an existing piece of work is that, in the broadcaster or the funder's eyes, we are already negating some of the risk associated with making anything for screen.

"We can point to an established readership, we can point to book sales, we can point to a position in the marketplace. They are increasingly popular in the world that we live in at the moment. Where there's so much opportunity for screen content, books provide a great foundation for the story."

For producers, Mundell says, "some of the heavy lifting has been done".

"I think there's so much anticipation amongst a readership who have bought into a book and love the book and characters," Mundell says, "who want to see it on screen and want to see what the screen version of that story is."

But that doesn't mean that the process is necessarily always a fast one. Waiting for the right screenwriter "can take 18 months," Mundell says.

It's also common for rights to be optioned and for the adaptation to remain unmade  - or for the production to be in the works for years before seeing the light of day. In fact, there's a lot of mystery around the whole process: what does a good deal look like, what really goes into taking something from the page to the screen, and is it all that common?

"I think there's a process of adapting work and optioning work that needs to be demystified a little," says Creative Scotland Literature Officer Alan Bett.

Bett, along with Screen Officer Louise Acheson, facilitated the event at the Book Festival that Mundell and Bickmore spoke at.

The purpose was to connect publishers and producers, to provide a platform for questions to be asked and answered, and to build up a network. Acheson says, "we are looking forward to building on today’s event, to support more meaningful and regular connections between the two sectors.”

The event explored general opportunities and challenges of adapting books for the screen; optioning, negotiating deals and realistic timelines; aligning publication and book marketing with a screen release; different ways relationships can build between producers and publishers or authors and the development process.

Speaking about the event, Mundell notes "how easy it is, and yet how infrequent it is for producers and publishers to get together.

"We both share the same desired outcome - which is taking more stories out into the world, particularly in Scotland.

"We've got a very distinctive culture and point of view here - and I'm sort of amazed that this doesn't happen more often.

"I think it's great initiative from Creative Scotland to host something like this. My key takeaway would be to get to know some publishers and make contact with them frequently, because there's a mutual benefit to doing so."

This article was published on 22 Aug 2019