Making a Bestseller Into a Movie

Making a Bestseller

Some time ago, I met up with Ken Atchity, whose agency worked with Steve Alten and helped him publish his New York Times bestseller MEG, which is being developed into a movie starring Jason Statham and directed by Eli Roth. MEG is a series of novels by Alten set around the fictitious survival of the megalodon, a giant prehistoric shark

Recently, I hooked up with Steve Alten and asked him who it was going. He now has a MEG series of books, and they are bestsellers international in different countries. Though Alten parted way with Atchity ten years ago, he is in a whole new realm with MEG going into production.

I asked Alten how has the journey to get MEG in film production taught you about Hollywood. He said, “It takes time and the right connections... and some luck and persistence to get a tentpole movie made.”

Multi-Million Dollar Deals

What interested me about interviewing Atchity is he boasts that he makes multi-million dollar deals. That is a pretty powerful statement.

Seventeen years before he formed AEI as a production company in 1989 and as a literary management company in January 1996 Atchity was a professor of literature and creative writing (both at Occidental College and at UCLA's Writer's Program.)

After undergraduate work at Georgetown and graduate work at Yale, Ken was a professor of comparative literature, creative writing, & journalism at Occidental College and at UCLA Writers Program from 1970-87, and received major scholarly grants prestigious foundations such as the Mellon Foundation.

In addition to several books, Ken has written for major scholarly journals throughout the world, publishing books on Spenser, Homer, and Italian Literature. He was Fulbright Professor at the University of Bologna, Italy; founder and coeditor of Dreamworks and Contemporary Quarterly. He's published articles, poems, songs, book reviews (since 1972 for The Los Angeles Times) and made numerous radio and television appearances. Like I said back in the late 1990s, I met up with Ken, while he was leisurely sipping a glass of merlot at the Cyberspace Cafe. I bought Ken’s second glass and coaxed him into an informal Q & A interview.


KENNA: So we can get an understanding of how AEI works tell us a little bit about how you nurtured Steve Alten's MEG to a bestseller and then into film development. How long did it take AEI to coach and hone Steve's concept and research to a bestselling format?

Nine months for the Disney sale; two more months before the Bantam-Doubleday sale. We recognized Steve's concept and research as having bestselling potential (alone among the 39 companies he submitted his original manuscript to), then, through AEI's Writers' Lifeline, coached him through honing his techniques and structure to create a marketable manuscript.

On AEI's website, it says "We are a story company first and foremost." How does this relate to the writer who has written a book, screenplay, teleplay or play and is looking for an outlet?

It means a writer shouldn't worry about what form his story is in--we're interested in the story itself, whether it's ready or unready, script, novel, nonfiction, or play.

KENNA: How many story submittals do you get per day or week? Out of those, how many do you consider worth going through the AEI process?

We get approximately 250 submissions, including queries, per week at this point. We reject 230 outright, and perhaps consider 20 for the AEI process. About once every month, we find one that's ready as is and immediately sign it.

KENNA: Do you look for "uniqueness" or "derivative" in a story idea? Why?

We look for familiar uniqueness, an old story told in a surprising new way.

KENNA: Is there a formula AEI follows to put a package deal together? Or, is each "great story" formulated differently?

The formula is the ancient formula of all effective storytelling described in A WRITER'S TIME under "Myth and Story" and "The Elements of Fiction and Drama."

KENNA: I was fortunate to meet you in Northern California to attend one of your talks. I was given the impress that you are more of a producer than a literary agent. What part of the business are you involved with the most?

I'm equally involved in managing and in producing. That is exactly what distinguishes me and AEI--we do both. All the time. I'm in New York now, where I spend roughly half my time in the book world--the other half in L.A., where my partner Chi-Li Wong concentrates about 75% of her energy towards motion pictures.

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KENNA: How has your teaching and literary background assisted you in manufacturing projects?

My study and teaching of comparative literature, myth, and creativity were the perfect preparation for what I do now--all focused on how humans weave and express their stories--from the oral tradition that produced the Iliad and the Odyssey, to the intricate novels of William Faulkner and the concentrically organized perfection of Dante's Commedia.

KENNA: Are you more concern with plot driven ideas than character driven ideas?

No. They're equally important.

KENNA: What is the number one mistake writers do which impedes their chance for success?

Expressing their distrust of themselves as distrust of the industry they're trying to be recognized by.

KENNA: You mentioned the one mistake writers do which impedes their chance for success is "distrust in themselves and the industry," how does AEI assist a writer through this barrier?

We usually don't. When we sense the distrust, we say "life is too short," and move on.

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