Sylvie Rabineau and Jill Holwager Gillett sold their boutique Rabineau Wachter Sanford & Gillett Literary Agency to WME five years ago.
At that time, the pair, who are now co-heads of WME’s literary packaging division, were behind films such as The Girl on the Train and series including HBO’s The Leftovers.
In the intervening five years, the duo have racked up hundreds more deals, helped by Hollywood’s growing reliance on books as IP, such as Hulu’s recent opioid drama Dopesick, which is based on Beth Macy’s eponymous book; Netflix’s Anatomy of a Scandal, based on Sarah Vaughan’s book; Amazon’s series adaptation of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s rock ‘n’ roll novel Daisy Jones and the Six; as well as Hulu’s raunchy Pam and Tommy, based on Amanda Chicago Lewis’ Rolling Stone article.
The pair represent a litany of A-list authors including Curtis Sittenfeld, whose Hillary Clinton alternative history Rodham is in the works at Hulu; Laura Dave, who is adapting her book The Last Thing He Told Me at Apple with Julia Roberts starring; as well as the star of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, poet Amanda Gorman, who is attracting major Hollywood interest.
Rabineau and Holwager Gillett also represent the estates of iconic authors such as Philip K Dick and John Steinbeck, whose work is always being developed for film and TV in various forms.
Since 2016, they have taken advantage of a boom in premium series, driven by the growth of streamers and the success of series such as Game of Thrones, Big Little Lies and The Handmaid’s Tale, to score hundreds of deals for their authors and writers.
In a wide-ranging interview, the pair tell Deadline how they’re dealing with the adaptation boom, how authors are becoming an even more essential part of the creative machine of Hollywood, how they’re increasingly doing deals for longform magazine articles, podcasts and even NFTs as well as a drive to bolster local-language adaptations of their authors’ work.
DEADLINE: It’s been five years since you sold RWSG to WME. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the literary packaging world?
SYLVIE RABINEAU: Our primary agenda has always been to elevate the authors that we work with and what’s been so incredible, I would say it started more than five years ago, but there’s been such an incredible trajectory for authors in this marketplace, the importance of their books, and the importance of authors as storytellers, and their rightful place in terms of their involvement in any given project, whether they are adapting the project themselves or serving as executive producer or consultant. It just feels like they have a very, very meaningful seat at the table now, and we’ve certainly seen that improve over the last 10 years, but the last five years have shown a significant improvement and empowerment of authors.
DEADLINE: What is driving this boom in literary IP other than the obvious growth in platforms?
HOLWAGER GILLETT: There’s two lanes to that question. The first would be books that are already mass market. You see deals happening on The Hobbit and other enormous [projects], and it’s undeniable that those are because of the reach of the project and the brand recognition. [Secondly], the books we take out, by the time they’re published, are beautiful and fantastic, and when they’re that good, the buyer can see what the whole story is as opposed to hearing a pitch, so they attract the highest level of writers and directors and actors. A book is a great way to attract people to work if you’re a buyer at your shop, and it’s also a great way to be able to communicate what the entirety of a story could be.
DEADLINE: How cutthroat has this world become?
RABINEAU: What you’ve seen is just a growing appetite amongst all of the producers, filmmakers, screenwriters, looking for excellent IP to engage with, and so, that’s really been the driving factor in the increased importance of IP within the marketplace. That dovetails off of what Jill just said, which is more and more we realize that these distinct voices that authors have are talent magnets and just bring together fantastically interesting and inspired teams, and that’s what the market is looking for. Distinct voices, distinct material, premium elevated storytelling.
The massive IP that are already at a shop, for example, George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. The series worked, and then on top of that, there are a great number of spinoffs to that, and so, particularly when they buy IP that could be categorized as a world, or building a world, it helps them have a whole corridor of that branded entertainment.
DEADLINE: How many deals have you done in the last five years?
RABINEAU: Absolutely in the hundreds. It’s not only all of the book deals that we do, but also our authors who are television writers and feature writers, so you add those deals into the book deals, as well, and it’s very robust. There’s a lot of deal flow for this whole department.
HOLWAGER GILLETT: Our department differentiates itself by thinking less of the initial book sale and more about conversion. We don’t take on a volume of books just to get option purchase deals. We take on a volume of books that we think will make great projects that we can use all of the elements of the agency to piece together. We’d rather spend more time putting together a project that is closer to a go when we take it out than take out 20 mass markets books with no real end in sight other than an option.
That speaks to one of the major reasons Sylvie and I made the decision five years ago to sell our company specifically to WME because of the amount of resources across all genres of entertainment that we can put together with our books to make them even more exciting projects when they go to the marketplace.
RABINEAU: When we do that, we’re either working hand in glove with our prestigious New York book agents or our prestigious network of co-agents around the world that we work with. When we had RWSG, the driving factor…and it remains to this day…is what is the author’s agenda? What is the author’s vision? Hand in glove with the publishing agent for how they want to see their material developed. Then we have at our fingertips such incredible talent from across the board, writers, directors, producers… that we can help them push forward their agenda for how they want to see their work materialize.
DEADLINE: Given WME’s client base, you must have seen some interesting internal competition?
RABINEAU: We work completely agnostically. We sell projects to people outside the agency and to people inside the agency, but as outsiders, Sylvie and I thought [WME] is the biggest A-plus store of incredible talents, so we want to be at WME. It really was with the caveat that we would only ever do what was best for the author, and that the author is a client of this agency and as a client that they are as important as anybody else.
HOLWAGER GILLETT: The authors are actually important clients here. It’s not just when people say oh it’s a great piece of IP. We will always say that is a book written by an author named…
RABINEAU: That author’s seat at the table is equally important to every other talent sitting at the table, and that’s been sort of our righteous agenda from the very beginning of our careers is just to spread the message of the essential nature of the author’s work to so many projects within this business. We’ve really seen that happen, and it’s been incredible to see how authors are now valued for their books, but also for their significant contributions in the development process. I feel it’s just a whole new world.
DEADLINE: Why have the authors become more important in this process?
RABINEAU: It’s the television business that has really pushed the author forward because the television executives, producers, all of them understand the stories they are telling are episodic, and authors know how to tell episodic stories so elegantly. They know to deliver cliffhangers. They know how to create an arc for a character over multiple pages. There’s just a natural kind of symbiosis between storytelling episodically, whether it’s limited or ongoing, and when an author is creating his or her book, that the feature business now is understanding that as well. It used to be, back in the day, where everybody was fearful that authors were too precious about their own work, and it just is not the case. For the most part authors really understand that an adaption is a variation of their work, and that it’s team collaboration, and they just want to see the best version of that happen, and so, they are happy to roll up their sleeves and be excellent collaborators to deliver that best interpretation of their work.
DEADLINE: More authors than ever are adapting their own work and if they’re not, they’ve got a meaningful executive producer role. Is that right?
RABINEAU: Let’s work backwards a little bit here. We talk with the writers of the books, and we find out how they want to be involved, and many of them will say I’d like to have a seat at the table, but I don’t want to write it. Some will say I do want to write it, but I want to co-write with somebody, and others will say I’ve always wanted to write in film or television, and this is my moment. Based on those answers, we know who the producers are who prefer to work certain ways. We meet with writers of film and television all day long, and we ask would you want to supervise or collaborate with an author? We know who the people are who really like to do that, so we’re able to build a sort of bespoke situation for all of the writers based on how they want to interact. Sometimes we’ve heard from our authors that writing a pilot or a script is like a downhill ski race as opposed to the cross-country slug of writing a novel, and some say “Good Lord, I will never do that again. No, thank you. That is not for me.” It’s so different from writer to writer. It’s just our job to put them with the right people and in their right situation so that their wishes can be met.
It’s more accepted now [for an author to adapt their own book] than it’s ever been accepted before, but there’s also different kinds of books. Voice-driven books, books that are very much about the voice of the author, the voice of the character, that’s somewhat biographical, it’s really important that that author would be involved, and they would be wanted. If something is so specific to plotting and structure as say a screenplay might need to be in a thriller, there is a very specific and earned place for screenwriters that are great at that and may not be a writer’s strong suit. It just so depends on the project, the nature of the book, the nature of the writer, and what form we’re adapting it into.
HOLWAGER GILLETT: I hear often from my clients who adapt their own work that they find the skills are really complementary, that they find writing for television or writing for film actually makes them better novelists.
DEADLINE: Has the rise of authored TV shows like Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag or Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You led to more deals for personal stories?
HOLWAGER GILLETT: I don’t know if there’s more books or not. I don’t know if publishing has followed the trend of the auteur-driven television series, but I do think that voices we haven’t heard before, and in particular voices from writers who are from under-represented groups, are really in demand. We want to make sure that TV and film is a representation of everybody who lives in the world, so when we read something we’ve never heard it before, we’ve never seen it before, that’s when the entire town wakes up and says yes, yes, yes. And I think you would find the same in publishing.
DEADLINE: We’ve been talking about books, but you also represent journalists and publishing companies, correct?
RABINEAU: We work with a number of journalists. We do represent publications in this department, and we do have a number of our agents too that are working closely with podcasts as well. So, it really is sort of a crossroads for many different kinds of intellectual property.
DEADLINE: Is there any difference to doing a deal for a book rather than a long-form article, other than size?
HOLWAGER GILLETT: It’s interesting that you say ignoring size because we can’t ignore size right now. What we’re finding is that because the marketplace is so competitive for books now, and so many people are submitting them in the market, that we are doing very well with short stories and shorter-form storytelling, so that is actually something that is a trend we notice a lot.
RABINEAU: Short stories can be such jewels because they are such powerful prose, and yet it also leaves room for a writer or a director to come in and really also take ownership. It can provide architecture for story or for character, but it allows for that writer-director to also be very creative in terms of the development of that particular short story, so I think that’s part of the reason too that they’ve become so popular. I think it’s true for articles as well. Jill and I are just as happy to sit down and read a 10-page article as we are a 500-page book. In that way, size does not matter.
DEADLINE: Has the boom in limited series impacted this market?
HOLWAGER GILLETT: It’s actually an interesting time for limited series in the marketplace. What we’ll hear from our buyers at the streamers is that it’s very hard for them to do a limited series and not have any possibility of returning it. In the case of a very high-end limited series, it costs a lot of money, and they promote it, and now they can’t have it again. Yet, we’re also seeing at the same time that certain streamers wanting less seasons of projects because they feel like they have to feed the sort of beast by constantly delivering new material. It’s an interesting moment for the limited series. It seems as though it needs to be an absolute event to get traction as a limited series.
Sylvie and I are hybrid agents; we represent writers who don’t write underlying material, and as division leaders, we sit atop all the IP that comes out of the different divisions, our digital business, our podcast business, any kind of story or asset that WME represents, our department sits across it, and part of that has to do with how killer our team is at making competitive deals and understanding the nature of protecting the separated rights at these deals. It’s really important that any client of the agency would have that person making their deal who has a lens to understanding well what happens to this property in 30 years, is it an NFT, and how do we protect that and all the different lanes today of how a piece of material can be exploited.
DEADLINE: Have you done any deals based on NFTs?
RABINEAU: We’re trying to reserve rights. Call us in a year. It makes me smile when a business affairs person asks me what is an NFT, and I actually know.
HOLWAGER GILLETT: We’re trying.
DEADLINE: Could you see a day when book publishers start signing first-look and overall deals direct with the studios and streamers?
HOLWAGER GILLETT: There have historically been some of those. A lot of that has related to the vertical integration of these massive companies, but it doesn’t really make much sense because there’s so much material in any given publishing company or any given digital label or production company that it is very difficult to have a deal with only one buyer. The publishing houses [also] don’t actually necessarily, or mostly do not, retain the film and television and ancillary rights of the books that they publish. Those go to the authors.
RABINEAU: Publishers really value their relationships with their authors and their publishing agents, and I think they want the authors to feel like they can really have a say in the path that the book is going to take once it enters our marketplace.
DEADLINE: You are across a broad range of genres, involved with Dopesick, Pam and Tommy and Daisy Jones and the Six. What type of material are you finding is really popping right now? Last week, everyone seemed to be looking for the new Ted Lasso, now they seem to be searching for their Squid Game.
RABINEAU: It’s funny that you say that because I have a client who’s an exceptional writer, and everything he writes is quite dark. Yesterday, he was talking about how happy he was that Squid Game is so popular. We can certainly clock the trends, and you’re right about both of those, but we’re not chasing the market in that way. We’re just finding what’s exceptional in every category and leaning in, and there’s so much opportunity in terms of the different demographics out there, and what all the buyers are looking for that we just need to lean into what we think are the best of each genre and press them forward and be mindful of the trends but not feel shackled by them.
DEADLINE: You’re taking a long-term view?
HOLWAGER GILLETT: What our buyers want are programs and films from the highest level of talent working in the industry today, and so, any story, any author we have who also attracts equal levels of excellence, that’s what’s going to sell. A certain streamer can say they’re not going to do a war show, right? But when certain people walk in their door with a war show, they’re going to be bidding on it with everybody else, so we just can’t pay attention to those rules. We can really only go by what we’re excited about, what we’re passionate about, and what we feel we can sell vigorously to the talent that we get to talk with and the buyers that we get to talk with.
DEADLINE: Is there any concern with the number of projects that are developed that never make it anywhere near screens?
RABINEAU: Obviously, there’s always the concern for authors and every content creator that so much is developed and the conversion rate can never be what everybody hopes or wants it to be just for practical reasons. I don’t think anyone feels differently about it now than they did before. Again, it’s one of those things where we put on our blinders and we just do the best for every project. We don’t get derailed or distracted by the volume of deals. What you’re looking for is who’s the passionate buyer. It’s so important to have that executive in-house that the streamer or the studio or the premium cable channel that loves it so much that becomes your partner in pushing it forward. There’s so many different ways that you can work to press your project forward, but the statistics are what the statistics are. We all wish it was 100% of conversion 100% of the time but it’s just not possible.
DEADLINE: You also mentioned the non-fiction side. Documentaries and docuseries are having a moment right now.
RABINEAU: Well, it’s interesting because there are nine agents in this department. Actually, in particular one of our agents, Elizabeth Wachtel, is a passionate reader of non-fiction. From narrative non-fiction to very academic non-fiction. She really has developed this lane within the department where she is interacting with our non-scripted colleagues on a daily basis and has really become an expert in books to documentaries, books to docuseries. We all feel so lucky to have her a part of this department because that is really her lane. The great thing about our department, we have so many incredible agents in this department. A number of them have lanes like the agent I just mentioned has the non-fiction lane.
We have Carolina Beltran, an agent who specializes in Spanish-language authors; we have another agent, Sanjana Seelam, who specializes in Southeast Asian authors and co-productions with Southeast Asian companies. We have another agent, Olivia Burgher, who specializes in family and children and animation; and we have Eric Reid who focuses on comic books and classics; while Anna DeRoy and Hilary Zaitz Michael work across all areas. What makes this department so unique and so fun is that we all get to learn from each other and we all get to cover all the different kinds of material and all the different kinds of adaptations that exist.
HOLWAGER GILLETT: We are a growing department. We are looking ahead to what the needs are and we’re recruiting for very specific plans that we do have. This is a company that says great, go. If you see something go do it.
RABINEAU: International growth is also such a huge focus. That is an area where this department is going to continue to grow and flourish. Jill and I, we work with 60 co-agencies around the world. We represent two agencies in Scandinavia exclusively. We work with agencies in Israel and in Spain and so this is an area that we’ve always loved. So, for us it’s so fun that this is where the market is growing because it allows us to lean into that passion that we both shared since we started working together.
DEADLINE: If we have this conversation again in five years, what do you think will be the biggest change?
HOLWAGER GILLETT: Our goal is to be involved in selling local for local. Our job is to help authors in their own original countries. So, being able to advance and augment our team to be able to cover a more global writing picture is really a huge goal.
RABINEAU: In keeping with everybody responsible for bringing stories to the screen, continuing to identify and help writers from underrepresented companies bring their projects forward.