Sidharth Jain is no stranger to the film business. After founding and running the story and script development company iRock Films, he worked for two years at the OTT digital content streaming company Hotstar, where he headed original content, licensing and acquisitions. Early in 2018, Jain founded what he calls “India’s first story company”, The Story Ink. A large part of business is the selling of film or dramatisation rights to books written by Indian authors. Jain spoke to Scroll.in about the relatively new business books-to-film agenting, and the resurgence of popularity in using books as source material for films. Excerpts from an interview.
How new is the idea of books-to-film agenting in India? How many such agencies do we have here?
The idea of screen adaptations of books is an age-old one. We have been adapting books such as the Ramayana and a lot of mythological stories as TV shows and films for decades. There are two or three individuals and agencies who have been pursuing screen adaptations for the past few years. But what we are doing new is to take the screen adaptation business from mere agenting to curating content strategy. This is what The Story Ink (TSI) is doing. While we work on a fee model, we are in the business of turning books into projects.
You’ve held senior positions in big production houses. When and why did you decide to launch TSI?
Sometime in 2017, I figured that the need for premium content – streaming, TV and film – was on the rise. No one was focussing on collective story aggregation and development. Since I have spent more than a decade in story and script development, it seemed like the most natural space to focus on. Besides, I have always been an avid reader, and this comes naturally to me.
Is Bollywood’s newfound interest in books as source material for films because of the success of film adaptations of Chetan Bhagat’s books? Or are there other reasons?
I think the real reason is the entry of streaming giants like Amazon and Netflix. They are seeking better content and that’s putting pressure on the limited talent and story pool that we have in our industry. The rising demand for content is the reason the business needs access to better developed and curated stories.
Has there been renewed interest in going beyond the adaptation of only bestsellers after the recent global success of The Sacred Games (based on Vikram Chandra’s novel) and the domestic success of Raazi (based on Harinder Sikka’s Calling Sehmat).
Sacred Games and Raazi have definitely shown producers in India that there is a vast pool of unexplored stories that have been published over the last few years. Both these projects will surely help reduce the gap between the publishing, and the audio-visual entertainment industries.
Rarely has a film version of an Indian book had such a positive impact on sales as Raazi has had on Calling Sehmat. Why do you think that is the case?
Luckily for the writer and publisher, the book was picked by one of the best production houses in the country. Had it been a weaker player, the result for the same film would have probably been different. Development and talent packaging are essential for the success of any project. Stories or books need to evolve into projects. That’s the key factor.
What genres do Indian filmmakers prefer? Are they open to adapting literary works in different genres?
Of late biographies have been in great demand. But a good thriller, horror or mystery will always make for a good adaptation. I don’t get swayed by genres. A good story, well told, usually works with audiences.
Are film studio executives readers themselves?
Very few. Forget studio executives, to my shock and disbelief, a lot of scriptwriters and directors don’t read books. In fact, most people don’t even read scripts. They want narrations. So you can see, the reading gap is very wide.
Is non-fiction more popular than fiction?
Biographies and real stories are more popular at the moment. Trends change very swiftly.
Do you represent books written in regional languages?
Yes. Our first screen adaptation deal from TSI was for two Hindi novels. But I must admit that regional language books are a bit difficult to pitch in Mumbai.
What does it take to turn a book into a successful film?
The most important thing is to connect a particular story with the right producer. Once that happens, the producer will develop and package the project. If a good book ends up with the wrong producer, it is very difficult to salvage it. The task for the director and writer is difficult if the producer makes the wrong choices.
A film based on Amish’s Meluha series was announced many years ago, but still hasn’t seen the light of day. Why do so many adaptations get delayed?
Usually a lot of books don’t make it to screen if the trade is not ready for a project of that scale and genre. Timing is very important. Some stories need huge budgets or highly skilled filmmakers to execute a project. As I said, the book is merely the source of the story. It has to evolve into a project with the right screenplay, director, actors and crew – all within viable budgets.
Do authors approach you or do you approach them? Do you also sell rights on behalf of publishers?
I work with authors, publishers and literary agents. Usually I find a book which I feel should be adapted and then I reach out to them (the author first and then the publisher). But now, increasingly, authors are reaching out to me on their own.
How have things changed with the entrance of global streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime? Do they look for different source material compared to traditional production houses?
The content game has been elevated due to the entry of these companies. Netflix definitely looks very actively for good books as source material. It’s evident from Sacred Games how much importance they give to stories with depth of writing. In fact most of the new streaming entrants are very actively seeking stories in the form of published books.
What kind of money can authors expect from such deals?
The value of screen adaptation rights can vary from Rs 5 to Rs 50 lakh, depending on numerous factors. Some books have even been acquired for much higher amounts as well.
Do you also sell to international production houses?
Yes. I am curating story solutions for a bunch of production companies based in the UK, the US and Canada.
MAMI festival’s initiative Words to Screen provides a platform for writers to sell their books to filmmakers. Most major publishing houses are selling film and television rights directly or through large agencies like KWAN. In a recent press release, Juggernaut’s Chiki Sarkar said that one out of five books on their publishing list have been optioned for film, TV or digital rights. Why should authors choose you over these existing options?
At TSI we don’t look at screen adaptation as an “agency” business. The commission from closing an option deal is not our goal. Since I have been a development producer for more than a decade, we wear a producer’s hat and curate books as projects for producers. We do not send out catalogues or lists. We work with producers on their content+business strategy and then find the right story to implement it. At TSI, our goal is not to just get a book optioned or to sell the rights. We want the project to get made and released. We work very closely with all the leading production houses on their production slates and then recommend books or stories.
Your list of recent deals includes Bangladeshi author Saad Z Hossain’s Djinn City. Were the rights sold to an Indian production house? Are Indian production houses open to content from other South Asian countries?
I cannot comment on specifics due to the confidentiality clause, but yes, it’s an international studio. But at the moment, the flavour is India and other south Asian stories will be difficult to set up.
Do you have a team of readers assessing the film potential of books? Or do you read every book yourself?
I personally read each book that I select. Since we offer curated solutions to leading studios and producers, it’s important that I know what I recommend and why.
How hands on are you with your authors?
I deal with the authors personally. The way TSI operates, the authors have to meet the producer only once – when we sign the rights deal. I don’t like to use the authors to pitch their material. We do all the pitching. Stories and authors should be treated like we handle diamond jewellery.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Reading a book a day, and curating great Indian stories for audiences.
Kanishka Gupta runs the literary agency Writer’s Side.