A dream that many authors yearn to have, National Bestselling Author, ReShonda Tate Billingsley is living the dream when her sophomore book, “Let The Church Say Amen” premiered as a movie on BET on August 29th. Authoring over 37 books, Billingsley talks with me about how she achieved her book to TV movie deal, details about signing over rights to BET and what she learned from the entire production process.
Congrats on your book-to-movie that debuted on BET! Such a huge accomplishment when your book turns into a movie! I heard from a simple act of kindness is what initiated, or shall I say was the precursor into this movie deal. Can you elaborate on how you got the deal?
Yes. I was at a book signing and a young lady came up to me, she had on a McDonald’s uniform and she told me she loves to read. She pointed at her uniform and said ‘you see where I work, I don’t get paid till next week so I don’t have money to buy a book.’ So I bought the book for her. She read it. She loved it. She gave it to her sister who worked in the airport bookstore. One day Juanita Bynum was coming through that airport bookstore and the sister told her she should get this book by ReShonda Tate Billingsley because she was so nice to my sister. Juanita told her she never read fiction in her life but she convinced her to get my book because I was so nice to her sister and her sister was so excited. Juanita bought it. Read it. Loved it. Got in touch with me and long story short, asked if she could take it to Hollywood. That’s how I got on their radar.
That’s awesome. You blessed someone else and in return got a bigger blessing out of it. I was so elated to finally see the movie! I thought it was great. I know the last time we did an interview in 2013 it was supposed to come out that fall. Does the production time usually take this long?
It does. Quite often enough, the movie ‘Ray’ took ten years. A lot of movies take a long time. Tyler Perry has kind of changed the game because he doesn’t have to go through all these various levels. He’s the head honcho. But BET is all about Sony-Viacom. We had several producers on board and we had to go on their schedule. You will see that often in Hollywood. It takes a while for a book to come to fruition—a project in general.
So when your book becomes a movie, you sign over the rights to your book? If so, what exactly does signing over the rights entail?
Yes. They essentially own that character. For example, it’s a mandate, any books that I have with Rachel they essentially have the right to make a book about Rachel.
I can’t take Rachel’s story and take her over to another network or company and let them do a movie out of it. As bad as it may sound for the authors, it’s very understandable. Think about a production company who invested their money making the first Harry Potter and Harry Potter blows up. You don’t have any more rights to any Harry Potter stories, but you blew Harry Potter up. But now the writer takes Harry Potter over to the next person and you invested all your time and money in it. That’s why they do that.
I usually try to read the book before watching the movie because I know the book has more depth and details and the movie is usually condensed to about an hour an half to two hours. How pleased were you with the final product?
Yes, I was very pleased with it. What people don’t understand is that a manuscript is over 300-400 pages and the movie script is 90-100 pages. So you have to reduce all of that into a 1/3 of the size of your manuscript. They just can’t include everything that’s in the book.
For someone who may not have read your book prior to watching the movie, would you agree that BET captured the essence of the book?
Absolutely. A movie is supposed to taste like a book. They captured the storyline and for that I was very pleased.
Many movies were once novels. Such as “Baggage Claim,” “Addicted,” “Hunger Games,” and the list goes on. On a normal circumstance, if an author wanted to pitch their book to become a feature film or TV movie, what is the usual protocol for that?
There is no protocol. The business is a lot of who you know and networking. I’ve been going out to events and networking, but that’s not how I got my movie deal. I have another movie coming out with TV One which I did get from actually being out and networking with people. There is no hard fast rule, but it definitely is about getting it in the right hands. A friend of mine got her book to Halle Berry’s hair dresser. She gave Halle her book, and she bought the rights to it. So there is no hard fast going through the front door rule. There are a lot of ways. It’s just about getting it in someone’s hands who has some production credibility.
How did you land TV One?
I was speaking somewhere and one of the executives with TV One saw me speaking. She came up to me, introduced herself and we started talking from there. She was interested in my body of work. She knew people who had read my books. Once you get on Hollywood’s radar, they know you. Someone at TV One had already heard of me and had been talking about me. So she got two of my books. “The Secret She Kept” and “The Devil Is A Lie” will be out in the Fall of 2016.
Video courtesy of TVOne
The movie was directed by Regina King and Produced by Queen Latifah’s Flava Unit. How involved were you in the production and direction of the film? Were you there every step of the way?
Yes, I was and that is a rarity. Usually, when they buy the rights to an author’s book, they buy the rights and send the author on their way. I was actually involved from the very beginning. Regina King and her sister, Reina were the early on producers. I was involved in everything from funding of the movie and casting, and when BET came on board they allowed me to continue to be involved. I was on set the whole time we filmed and really throughout the entire process.
You made a cameo in the film. Did you have to audition for your lines or because of your position you were grandfathered into a role?
I expressed my interest in acting so they were happy to write me in. That came from being involved in the process and them enjoying my work.
I thought the cast did an excellent job.
I was very very pleased. That was one of the most phenomenal experiences, having these actors—I knew their work and respected— come up to me and ask, “Am I doing your characters justice?” They wanted to make sure I was happy with their delivery of my characters. That was a great feeling.
Sneak Peek of “Let The Church Say Amen”
In the book Rachel’s brother, Jonathan was gay. In the film, he wasn’t.
As a writer, we can just write. As a movie producer, you have to think of the bigger picture. They have to look at: Are churches going to get behind this movie and sponsor it? Are they going to urge their members to go see it when they have a main character that’s gay? In the book, Rachel has two children, in the movie she only has one. That would be another actor they would have to pay, explain the two baby daddies. Little things like that are why they have to make that change, they’re thinking outside of just being the writer.
“Let The Church Say Amen” is a part of the Amen series. Will BET make movies out of the other books in the series?
That’s our hope. They bought the rights to ‘Everybody Say Amen’ and ‘Say Amen again’, the whole Rachel Jackson series. They always see how the first one does (which it did well) before they make a decision on whether they’ll continue it. They have a couple of options, they can make ‘Everybody Say Amen’ into a movie or a television series. Of course, my prayer is that they do. But they have not made a decision on that yet.
Since BET has the rights to the Amen series and it is possible that they will continue with another movie, will they continue to use the same actors from “Let The Church Say Amen”?
I have no idea. That kind of thing I have no control over. It is the same characters in the book, but I do know a large part of that will depend on the actor’s availability.
Was there a writer to rewrite the script? If so, is it mandatory they read the book first?
The screenwriter did read the book because she wanted to have a deeper understanding of the characters. I know some screenwriters that don’t want to read the book because they just want an idea of what the book is about and want to create from there. I think it is a personal preference. I adored our screenwriter, Crystal Garrett, because she wanted to make sure I was happy and that she captured the essence of the book.
While I was watching the premiere, I was following the conversations on Twitter with the hashtag #churchsayamenBET and many people thought the mom was popping pills. Just to clarify she had a heart condition, correct?
Yes, she did.
I really enjoyed the film. It’s funny, (because on social networks and reading along with the hashtag) I don’t know if it’s a stereotypical thing that BET doesn’t produce good movies, but from what I’ve seen, viewers had nothing but good things to say overall. I watched the movie by myself, but if I was to watch it with my parents or grandparents they would have enjoyed it too. It was overall a good, clean movie.
That’s what we loved about it. Regina, because of who she is and her credibility in the industry, she was able to attract a good caliber of actors and that helped out a lot. It was the overall product, everybody really believed in it. I think it was good for BET as well.
What are some little-known facts that viewers and fans may not have known about the movie or the production of the movie?
It took us four weeks to film. It was an amazing experience. There were some changes that readers of the book didn’t quite understand. In the book, he’s gay, in the movie he’s not. Production wise, they have to look at things differently than I as the author writing the story. My cameo was not in the book and that was created as well. So little tidbits like that.
What are some things you learned during this production process?
An author has to step outside of their author box and let the producers do what they do. There are a lot of authors who will say ‘you can’t change my words,’ it is a different ball game and I understood that. I think that’s why they enjoyed working with me. Once I was able to step outside of that writer’s mentality, I was able to appreciate everything they were doing with the movie.
Without getting too personal, what is a pay scale for an author to sign over his/her rights to a movie deal?
It can range from nothing. A lot of producers now are doing free options, where they shop the book around without paying anything. $5,000 to $50,000. It could just run the gamut. You could get paid more once the movie is actually done. Unless you’re a J.K. Rowling from Harry Potter or Stephenie Meyer from Twilight, or one of those types of authors where you can walk in the door commanding six figures for your movie. You just cannot expect to get that for your movie. Especially starting out the box. It is not something that is going to make you rich overnight.
What is the ultimate goal for an author?
That will vary per person. It depends on why you’re writing. Despite my accolades and achievements, my ultimate goal is to write a good book that readers enjoy, and are entertained and enlightened by. For me, everything else falls into place. I don’t write a book and say this is the book I want to be a movie. I don’t write with that in mind. This is the book I want to be on the New York National Bestsellers List. I write what I hope is a good story and hope everything falls into place from there.
What’s next for ReShonda?
I am continuing to write. I am working on my next book, “The Perfect Mistress.” I am continuing to run the publishing company, Brown Girls Publishing. Eventually, I would like to get into screenwriting as well. So I am just staying busy and doing what I love.
- “Let The Church Say Amen” will re-air on Sunday, September 20th on BET. Check your local listings for the channel and time.
Keep up with ReShonda here!
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