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Master Class

How Adaptive Studios Is Hacking "Development Hell" By Buying Abandoned Screenplays

The company behind Project Greenlight and The Runner has big plans for Hollywood's abandoned properties.

How Adaptive Studios Is Hacking "Development Hell" By Buying Abandoned Screenplays

Coin Heist

[Photo: Akooris; courtesy of Adaptive Studios]

Here's a very typical Hollywood story. Back in the '90s, British screenwriter William Osborne was on something of a hot streak. He parlayed the success of Twins, which he wrote, into credits on scripts like Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Ghost In The Machine, and Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde. He also sold a script to Miramax about a teacher who convinces his students to attempt to rob the Royal Mint. As happens, Osborne's script was one of many acquired by Miramax, and it got lost in development. By 1997, the project was dead. Osborne moved on to other projects—he eventually wrote The Scorpion King—and the heist picture he sold was a casualty of development hell. It's part of the game in Hollywood, and Osborne moved on without giving it a second thought.

Here's an unusual Hollywood story: Emily Hagins, a 23-year-old filmmaker from Austin, Texas, who had four features under her belt before her 21st birthday, was announced as the director of Coin Heist, a film based on a young adult novel by Elisa Ludwig. Ludwig's novel, about a group of high school students who come up with a plan to rob the Philadelphia Mint, bears more than a passing resemblance to Osborne's script. But it's not a coincidence, and it's definitely not plagiarism. Rather, it's the product of Adaptive Studios, a company started by Perrin Chiles, Marc Joubert, and T.J. Barrack with a simple plan: Buy the rights to intellectual property that got abandoned in development for pennies on the dollar, reshape them into books, and then take the successful projects and adapt them back into feature films.

Marc Joubert, a veteran producer who was consulting and under contract with Miramax, recalls the first time that Chiles and Barrack pitched him the idea. "They were like, 'We've been working on this thing and wanted to get your thoughts on it. Would you want to go to breakfast with us?' I was not ready for it at all—then I heard the concept, and I was like, 'I gotta be a part of this.' We started right away putting the plan in place. People hear this pitch and the reaction is always the same: 'Why has no one done this before? Why aren't there 10 companies doing this?'"

Chiles's pitch is pretty hard to argue with: "We look for Hollywood-vetted, commercially viable intellectual property that, for whatever reason, has fallen through the cracks or been abandoned," he says. "Often, we look at stories, scripts, and properties that were intended for one purpose—let's say going to 2,000 theaters—and then we look for opportunities to tell those stories through a whole host of new platforms." That means books, certainly—more on why in a minute—but also new technologies and platforms. The company has a robust digital arm, and partnerships with everyone from major studios to HBO to brands like JW Marriott and Toyota. But the project all starts with finding the right property.

Leveraging The Tentpole System

Fans and filmmakers alike lament the fact that Hollywood has moved very much toward tentpole features—smaller movies that could have been solid base hits for the studio that made them in years past have fallen out of favor as studios look to turn big-budget pictures into massive box office successes, which means that movies that might have been successful examples of great storytelling just a few years ago end up not getting made at all now. It's unfortunate, but it also means that there's a lot of opportunity for a company like Adaptive to take advantage of the gap in the market.

"There are still a lot of stories in the Hollywood ecosystem that are worthy of being told, but have lost the attention that Hollywood has typically given them, so for us, it's a really great opportunity to work with artists, agencies, and studio partners to say, 'Hey, you guys focus on your key business, which is looking to the future, and let us go ahead and work with properties that may not have gotten the attention that they once deserved," Chiles says.

There are a number of reasons a project might fall through the cracks—someone loses interest, someone who was attached backs out, the executive who was passionate about it shuffles around, etc.—and at Adaptive, they look for ways to work around all of that. "We can just say, 'Hey, let's think about this through a new lens. What if we did this?'" Chiles explains.

Coin Heisting

Adaptive found the script that became Coin Heist, and saw potential in a dated script set in the U.K. From there, Chiles says, they began their typical development process. "We'll take the idea—the spark, if you will—and set that in motion as a two-page writeup of what we would like to create from that basic idea," he says. "Then, we go out to agencies and authors and ask for their view, to get their creative lens on what something like this could look like. We'll get submissions, and then choose an author to write the novel."

In the case of Coin Heist, the winning pitch came from Elisa Ludwig, the author of the Pretty Crooked trilogy. She relocated the story from the U.K. to Philadelphia—she had gone to a prep school in Philly, near the Philadelphia Mint—and invested her own experiences into the script, which Chiles says was a big part of the appeal of her pitch.

Adaptive commissioned Ludwig to write the book, then published it as Adaptive Books, their own imprint. They took it to the world with the enthusiasm of a film project—a high production-value book trailer from Adaptive's filmmakers, a social media campaign, and what Chiles describes as a "very grassroots, very entrepreneurial" approach to marketing the book. "We ended up going out with this book, got some critical success, and really started to build an audience with it. So we thought it would be a really great opportunity to translate that back into a film."

From there, Adaptive hired Hagins to adapt the book back into a screenplay. It was a good fit: Hagins, who will turn 24 in October, has already had three films at SXSW, all of which tell stories about mixed-up teenagers like the ones in the Ocean's 11 meets Breakfast Club that is Coin Heist. "It's very John Hughes-esque, and she does that very well," Chiles says. "She was able to adapt the book into what she thought would be a very entertaining movie, and then we were able to cast some up-and-coming Hollywood talent as well as social media influencers."

Production on Coin Heist wrapped in March, and Hagins spent the summer at work on post-production. Adaptive has a distribution partner in place in Netflix—and for his part, it sounds like Osborne is pretty happy with what's become of his little screenplay from the '90s.

"He had originally sold the screenplay to Miramax outright, and we reached out to him immediately after getting the rights. We said, 'Hey, we acquired these rights. We'd love your blessing in moving forward, and in return for your blessing, if we're able to find success, we'll be able to have you be a part of that,'" Chiles recalls. "He said, 'I have not thought about that screenplay since 1997.'"

The Lucrative Publishing Market

Every legacy media industry faces uncertainty in a digital age, but things are tougher on publishing than they are on the film industry, as a whole. Which makes the fact that books factor so heavily into Adaptive's plans seem surprising—at least, until you recognize how they fit into the overall plan.

Adaptive Books is a publishing company, but in many ways, it's also a market research branch of the studio. The books matter—in addition to Coin Heist, they've also published Sara Benincasa's D.C. Trip, Elisa Lorello's Pasta Wars, and more—but they don't expect that they're going to pay the bills through the revenue earned by publishing. No one at Adaptive came from a publishing background until they hired Matt Wise as their VP of Publishing and Literary Development in August, and they recognize that the value of their publishing arm is wider than just what they make selling books.

"We aren't in the business of acquiring abandoned intellectual property to create abandoned intellectual property," Chiles says. "Being able to adapt a screenplay into a novel is a great way to actually put the story out in the marketplace, and see if we can attract an audience. If there's a conversation that starts happening where people are genuinely excited about the story, that, to us, is a great first step in terms of validating that this property might actually be commercially viable besides a book."

Adaptive is looking for singles and doubles, and they're using books as market research. At the same time, though, there is the possibility that something published by Adaptive Books breaks through beyond the relatively small market that is publishing. That's an opportunity that the company is very well aware of, and it's one that—despite being pretty satisfied with the current setup—they're certainly hoping for. Joubert has big ideas for what it could mean if one of the books exceeded any reasonable expectation. What if the next book fro Adaptive turns into the next Hunger Games?

"We can live off of the singles and doubles like Coin Heist and DC Trip, but if we hit one home run, that's all we need," he says. "Our investors look at it the same way. It's kind of that VC model: we just need one. I think right now, the way it would be set up is that [a Hunger Games style success] would be something that we could definitely handle. We wouldn't be able to finance a movie like that—that's not in our model—but financing and marketing the book is. And if that led to one of the bigger studios saying, 'Wow, you guys got three books out of that, I could see this being the next Hunger Games,' they would finance it, we would set it up, and we'd be attached all the way through as producers. That's part of our original business plan. That was the idea: Getting these distressed assets that have been collecting dust for pennies on the dollar, reimagining them, re-engineering and rebuilding what could be a franchise from the ground up, but not putting up the kind of risk to make them. The idea with every book we do is to bring it back to TV or film, without a doubt. None of them should be a one-off."

Ben Affleck, Matt Damon in Project GreenlightPhoto: John P. Johnson

What Comes Next

Ultimately, all of this is very smart. Adaptive—which also produces Project Greenlight for HBO—is set up nicely to be a sort of mini-factory of ideas and intellectual property. The concepts are purchased outright as abandoned IP. They hire writers to craft novels out of them. Adaptive can determine if there's a market for the story in a way that's consumer-facing and revenue-generating, but which—when we're talking Hollywood budgets—is still a pretty low-risk endeavor. If they decide to go forward with the project, they can hire filmmakers to work with who they developed through Project Greenlight. It's a closed system, almost like a Brill Building or Motown Factory for multi-platform narrative storytelling in a digital age. And that's something the entire business is built around.

"Our entire process, the intent is to take a bit of the execution risk out of the creative process," Chiles says. "We look at that through every stage of development. The probability of failure, at least in our view, becomes less and less. There are obviously a lot of pain points in the creative process. There's a lot of execution risk in Hollywood—so we've systematically tried to eliminate some of those pain points to be as successful as possible."

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