A talented team helmed by award-winning producer Sky Conway, including actor fan favorites such as Walter Koenig, plan to embark on a television pilot next year for John E. Stith’s MANHATTAN TRANSFER, the Tor Books novel about the kidnapping of Manhattan by aliens.
We asked John to write a series of short pieces to chronicle this thirty-year journey.
Here is part six.
The First Sky Conway Chapter.
I mentioned last time that Sky Conway first expressed interest in MANHATTAN TRANSFER film rights in 2003, so we’re at the twenty-year mark in this subplot of the MT story, and it’s been gradually turning into the main plot.
Sky first suggested I come out to Los Angeles to rewrite my MT screenplay, with an eye on minimizing the budget requirements, in 2004. I had a feature script written already. I’d co-written another feature script (a drama) that got filmed, but the producer ran out of money for post-production because of unexpected complications during filming. I’d also written several other scripts that were adaptations of my own novels. A friend, John Kennedy, and I co-wrote a feature script called USER HOSTILE that we optioned, and a feature adaptation of H. G. Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS, because under the old copyright law it was about to become public domain. When copyright was extended to 2017, we gave up. Those two scripts are tied up in Kennedy’s estate so will never be marketed.
Given that getting a feature film script sold is maybe ten percent writing and ninety percent marketing, I suggested to the co-executor at the time, Edward Bryant, Jr., that the estate could have one script if I could have the other, but sadly Ed is gone now, too, and the events in UH are now obviated by events. The UH story was a thriller about the early days of the internet, and when THE NET (1995) came out, that was probably the final nail in the coffin. For WOTW a period adaptation was done by the BBC in 2019. These are good reminders to use your own intellectual property (IP) or include language in every collaboration contract that specifies what happens if one of the parties dies.
I didn’t make that trip to see Sky in 2004. On second thought, he suggested putting the project on hold for a year because special effects costs were dropping dramatically. (This is an ongoing, very welcome trand.) In 2007, we discussed possibilities again. This was around the time Sky produced STAR TREK: OF GODS AND MEN, a low-budget addition to the franchise. He funded the film through crowdfunding, and has since made several other films with increasing budgets. He’s expanded his funding base and fan base with each new venture, and it looks like finally he can take on something as demanding FX-wise as MT.
In 2007, we agreed on contract terms for a feature film, but he decided the budget was too big a hurdle at the time.
In 2008, Sky came to me to pitch the idea of making an MT TV series. We met in Colorado to talk about it. At that time we weren’t able to make it happen.
Skip to late 2010. The ex-Allied Stars producer approached me again. We signed an agreement for a one-year packaging option. Although he found a number of people who loved the book, a film deal did not happen. Hollywood has a lot of rules, many of which get broken frequently, and one of the rules is that it often becomes tougher to sell a book that’s been out for a while.
One good thing did happen during that period, though. Out of the blue, I got an inquiry from a senior exec at a major film company who said she loved my work and wanted to see if a deal could happen for MANHATTAN TRANSFER. I said I was all for it and referred her to the ex-AS producer who at that time still held the option. Then things got a little weird. The producer set up three or four meetings with the new woman’s representative in LA and each time the meeting got cancelled at the last minute. Eventually the ex-AS producer gave up.
After the packaging agreement expired, I contracted the producer in her London office. She still said she loved MT and my work. On my honeymoon trip in 2013, the woman treated my new wife, Karen, and me to a wonderful dinner. The producer and I have since maintained a cordial friendship.
In the coincidence department, in 2012, FUTURAMA aired the “Cold Warriors” episode in which Manhattan is sliced loose and put under a cover. Stephen King’s UNDER THE DOME novel came out in 2009. The TV series began in 2013. The stories are nothing alike, but the shared imagery temporarily dampened the media possibilities for MT.
In 2016 I put together a MANHATTAN TRANSFER TV series bible, and I wrote about a third of a proposed pilot TV episode. My plan was to end the pilot episode at the moment when the residents of the domed Manhattan are first able to look out and see the array of alien cities, each under its own dome. One plot thread involved the first baby born in captivity, and the baby utters its first cries at the same moment, giving voice to the feelings likely going through the minds of some of the residents as they, too, suddenly find themselves thrust into in a new and bewildering environment.
Sky Conway and I stayed in contact and in 2018, he suggested a web-based series based on MT and called SKYJACKED. I was in LA to meet another producer who liked one of my other projects, so my agent and I talked with Sky about his ideas then. I was not keen on the SKYJACKED title as it sounded like a 1970s thriller to me, and I started sending Sky a number of alternate title suggestions. I think it was only after Walter Koenig came on board and expressed a preference for the original title that we went back to MT. Thank you, Walter!
Since that time in 2018 Sky Conway and I stayed in more frequent contact. In parallel, in 2021, an actor came on the scene expressing interest in optioning MT. I was really torn, because at that time Sky had not paid me any money. But Sky insisted we were getting close. Around a year later, when that actor came back to express continued interest, Sky was paying me money and we were under contract.
It was time, therefore, to finish the pilot script, to try to attract some actors, and get busy with pre-production.
To be continued.
Copyright © 2023 by John E. Stith
John E. Stith is the author of REDSHIFT RENDEZVOUS, a Nebula Award nominee, MANHATTAN TRANSFER, and numerous other novels and short stories. His works with Ace Books and Tor Books have been bought by the Science Fiction Book Club, optioned for film, and translated into many languages. He has optioned feature-film screenplays and has sold to television (Star Trek). Find him at www.neverend.com. His latest novellas are TINY TIME MACHINE and TINY TIME MACHINE 2: RETURN OF THE FATHER from Amazing Stories. His latest novel is PUSHBACK, a mystery-suspense novel. and a finalist for the Daphne Du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. In 2024, look for TINY TIME MACHINE 3: MOTHER OF INVENTION, and his new SF novel, DISAVOWED, both from Amazing Stories.
To be on John’s list of occasional writing updates, visit http://eepurl.com/bGL4kj.
John’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/john.e.stith
The Facebook page for the streaming series is https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=61552675967552 .
This story so far:
Part 1 In the Beginning https://amazingstories.com/2023/11/manhattan-transfer-the-motion-picture-in-the-beginning/
Part 3 The First Offer https://amazingstories.com/2023/11/manhattan-transfer-story-03-the-first-offer/
Part 4 Clouds Forming https://amazingstories.com/2023/12/manhattan-transfer-story-04-clouds-forming/
Part 5 Neverending Saga https://amazingstories.com/2023/12/manhattan-transfer-story-05-neverending-saga/