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Interview: Suzanne Hégelé and Frank Kroll

A large number of current films and series are based on books. International film festivals have therefore been organising pitches for many years at which key players in the publishing industry present texts to filmmakers that could be adapted into films or series.

The Shoot the Book! event in Cannes, which has been taking place for over ten years as part of the Marché du Film at the Cannes International Film Festival, is therefore all about networking international publishing experts and agents with film producers from all over the world – organised by SCELF (Société civile des éditeurs de langue française), in cooperation with Frankfurter Buchmesse.

Suzanne Hégelé and Frank Kroll both took part in the programme from a publishing perspective and talk about their experiences in Cannes and about their work in literary adaptations in general.

Suzanne Hégelé and Frank Kroll

Would you like to briefly introduce yourselves? Who are you? What do you do?

Frank Kroll: I'm a literary agent specialising in film rights brokerage. I worked for publishers for a long time and then set up my own business as a film rights agent in 2015. Since then, I've worked for various publishers, including Suhrkamp/Insel, Matthes & Seitz and Edition Nautilus. In total, I can draw on more than 1000 available film rights.

Suzanne Hégelé: I come from the film industry and have been Film Rights Manager at Diogenes in Zurich for two years. We have a large catalogue of film rights and a lot of experience with film adaptations of our books. As this area is very important to our publisher Philipp Keel and our Rights Director Susanne Bauknecht, we have been expanding it more intensively for some time and founded Diogenes Entertainment in 2016. The subsidiary is directly involved in numerous productions. This goes beyond the mere brokerage of film rights.

You regularly attend film festivals. How often have you experienced the Cannes Film Festival and how often have you taken part in “Shoot the Book!”?

Suzanne Hégelé: It was my second time there and I found it super interesting again this year.

Frank Kroll: I've taken part three times and have been allowed to pitch twice as part of Shoot the Book! The last time also opened up avenues that I wouldn't have thought possible before.

Which project was it about? Can you give details or is the project still in the process?

Frank Kroll: Cannes has an incredible international appeal. Last time I pitched Ralf Rothmann's novel Im Frühling sterben (Suhrkamp). The US media also reported on it. A US production company became aware of the title and now we have an option and film contract with New York's King Bee Productions. A high-calibre English-language feature film adaptation is planned (director/screenplay: Sam Nivola). I certainly wouldn't have achieved this if I hadn't pitched the title to Shoot the Book!

What makes Shoot the Book! special for you, Suzanne?

Suzanne Hégelé: Shoot the Book! is a very good opportunity to give our authors a stage and to draw producers' attention to material that could be made into a film. The producers are happy to receive well-prepared input in a short space of time and there is the opportunity to have in-depth discussions about current projects and develop ideas together.

What is the audience like in Cannes?

Suzanne Hégelé: My impression is that the atmosphere, the audience and the events are very inspiring. You get a comprehensive insight into the international film industry and meet industry professionals from all over the world. There is very close contact and dialogue on site, which is very special.

The producers and filmmakers see book material as a treasure trove for films. For them, events like Shoot the Book! are an inspiring source for finding good film material.

Frank Kroll: I share the impression that interest in book material is on the rise. A recent study shows that 20% of all series productions in France are based on literary material. In my opinion, this can also be observed in Germany with an upward trend, even if there are no valid figures yet.

The production people who come to Cannes are very open to our book presentations. Incidentally, I can hardly imagine a more beautiful place to work: The sun, the sea, the light – it's very inspiring. Not just for me, but also for the producers who take the film festival as a time-out to soak up the material. This atmosphere makes working and telling stories very enjoyable.

Suzanne Hégelé: Yes, that's true. There is a lot of interest in IPs in Cannes. Producers are always on the lookout for good stories and it's nice to see that many are also very interested in literary film adaptations. Literary material offers numerous opportunities for producers, directors and screenwriters – regardless of whether they faithfully adapt the book into a film or are inspired by it in a broader sense. The language of film requires a story to be presented to the audience visually with dialogue and music and not just through words, and this opens up new possibilities. Streaming platforms in particular, which have become even more important as a result of the pandemic, are always on the lookout for major IPs. Interest in content in various national languages has increased significantly. Netflix, for example, is very much looking for material beyond the Anglo-American market. I think this is a positive development that will hopefully benefit the great diversity of literature in different languages. Of course, it helps if the original books have already been translated into as many languages as possible. After all, it's always an important point how many languages books are translated into so that they reach the widest possible audience.

Has literature changed? Do authors write differently, for example more scenically?

Suzanne Hégelé: No, I don't feel that way. There are certainly commercial authors who write with a strong focus on the film industry. But I actually believe that a good literary novel creates strong images all on its own, which trigger the reader's mental cinema and draw them into the story.

Frank Kroll: That's an interesting question, but I don't think so either. The writers have made a conscious decision in favour of this art form. If translations into another language, a film or a series happen by chance, it's usually fine with them, of course, but it's not intentional from the outset. They are artistic forms of expression that exist independently of each other.

What criteria do you use to select the titles with which you take part in pitches?

Frank Kroll: For me, it's more of an intuitive process than a logical one. My experience plays a role, but of course I also take into account current criteria that the production people tell me in many conversations. It helps if your own mental cinema kicks in when you read a novel. That has nothing to do with the actual realisation later on. But it is perhaps an indication that the story is told in a very plot-driven way, that dramatic conflicts arise, that content with social relevance is dealt with, etc. The characters are also incredibly important. Characters are also incredibly important. An ensemble of characters who are contradictory and offer opportunities for identification is worth its weight in gold for a film adaptation. A credible character setting is the key to a film.

But not every novel can be made into a film or a series, and that's not what the publishers I work for want. The final decision is left entirely up to the authors. They should be happy. First of all, the publishers want to make good books. Everything else follows after that.

Suzanne Hégelé: There are many reasons why a novel can be a good starting point for a cinema or television adaptation. The arc of suspense, the characters, the entire universe depicted. Everything that triggers the cinema in my head are exciting criteria. As soon as images appear in my mind's eye, I feel that something can come out of it - regardless of whether it's historical material or a romantic comedy.

But these are more the soft factors; of course, our considerations also centre on whether it's a bestseller, how many translation rights have already been sold, etc. You have to be realistic and pragmatic. You have to assess that realistically and pragmatically.

Another very important point, as Frank mentioned, is that not all authors want to see their books made into films. Because before an adaptation is even made, you spend a long time in negotiations, holding talks, feeling out whether you're working with the right partners and much more. So, before we go into the creative realisation, and that includes whether we select a title for pitching, we talk to the authors.

The film rights business is a very careful, individual process on our part. And that's what makes the work so exciting.

Which titles have you pitched at Shoot the Book! this year?

Suzanne Hégelé: We chose The Hunt by Sasha Filipenko. The Belarusian writer lives in exile in Switzerland. His writing is very topical and reaches a large audience. He has already written for television and perhaps this is what makes his contemporary, gripping political thriller, which shows the dark side of modern Russia, so special. We can well imagine the material as a film or even a series. 

Frank Kroll: At the official pitching selection, I presented Sybille Ruge's new novel 9MM CUT (Suhrkamp). The novel by the Frankfurt-based author is about a private investigator who uncovers an international money laundering machine with its centre in Zurich. The characters in a completely dysfunctional family are unique, as is the investigator. The genre, basically a female noir, is highly interesting. The theme definitely works globally.

But I always come with a package of material. Because when I talk to the producers, I naturally also talk about other new releases and backlist titles. Clemens J. Setz, for example, is an author whose books I consider very promising as a film or as a serial adaptation.

You don't come back with full order books. The talks can be a starting point. And then it still takes years before projects are realised.

Suzanne Hégelé: Of course, I always have a lot of authors and material that I talk about at the various film festivals. Because Switzerland was the guest of honour in Cannes this year, Swiss authors were of course also there, Martin Suter for example. But it's not just about selling. It's also a chance to listen and learn. I ask questions like ‘What are you looking for at the moment?’, ‘What inspires you right now?’, ‘What is your niche?’ or ‘What is driving you and the market right now?’. These conversations are invaluable. They are often the first points of contact from which long-term relationships can develop. It's about meeting film-makers from many countries and forging a new relationship and then something can come out of that. As Frank said, in Cannes you meet in a very spontaneous way and often the greatest ideas come out of that. I find that very valuable.

What new ideas did you leave Cannes with?

Suzanne Hégelé: I have received concrete interest in our titles and will now follow this up. I also want to follow up on the many valuable new contacts.

Frank Kroll: I have made promising contacts in the French production scene that I would like to progress. It's a very unique film industry that functions very autonomously. Many of the discussions in Cannes centred on the topic of AI. I'm interested in the possibilities for my work. I see AI less as a threat and more as a tool to make communication more efficient. This applies to the area of translations, for example, but also to the possibility of being able to point out material offers in a more targeted way. But I also believe that there will only be interesting films or series with a creative human spark, which will always remain irrational. At least those beyond the calculated mainstream that would interest me.

What's next for you after VAs like Shoot the Book?

Frank Kroll: You try to build on the encounters in Cannes and develop the conversations you started as far as possible – and I have to somehow come to terms with doing that from Berlin, not in the Cannes sunshine. Basically, the talks are always going on. Events like Shoot the Book! in Cannes, Book to screen in Venice and Books at Berlinale are the highlights that you like to take advantage of. The next stage is to regroup.

Last question: Which literary film adaptation convinced you personally?

Frank Kroll: Oh, there are so many. I'll answer with a recent example: Treasure is the name of Julia von Heinz's new film based on the Suhrkamp novel Too Many Men by New York author Lily Brett. It is her first English-language film and has a great cast with Lena Dunham and Stephen Fry. Despite all the necessary cinematic condensation, the film remains very close to the novel and its two main characters, a Holocaust survivor and his daughter, who persuades him to travel to Auschwitz with her in the early 1990s. The world premiere took place in February during this year's Berlinale and the film will be released in cinemas in autumn 2024. The realisation took more than 10 years. For the author, who wrote a novel about her father, it was a very rewarding film.

Suzanne Hégelé: Our new Netflix series Ripley is a fantastic example. The latest film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's classic novel The Talented Mr Ripley by Steven Zaillian. A perfect example of how a strong original can produce something new in a film adaptation. The film differs significantly from the two previous film adaptations from the 1960s and 1990s and achieves a great effect. It is a modern homage to the classic noir crime thriller and Highsmith's abysmal character study of Tom Ripley. The film is not only a breathtaking visual feast, but also a meditation on the disturbing psychology of the anti-hero Ripley, with his unsettling obsessions and otherness. In the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock and far removed from the usual pace of a contemporary series.

The masterfully written script and Andrew Scott's portrayal and interpretation of the character are captivating. The amusing cat and mouse chase that develops with Freddie and Inspector Ravini is elegant, witty and full of suspense.

Suzanne Hégelé and Frank Kroll

Suzanne Hégelé, Film Rights Manager 

Originally from the UK, Suzanne Hégelé has worked as a production manager, development producer and line producer for independent film and television production companies in London, producing documentaries as well as feature films and series for the European and international co-production market. She has lived in Zurich for many years and works freelance as a production consultant, production manager, translator and editor in the private and public sector across a range of industries. Since 2022 she has been working as Film Rights Manager for Diogenes Verlag and its subsidiary Diogenes Entertainment. She has a passion for the craft of storytelling and for bringing compelling stories to life across media.

Diogenes Verlag is the largest independent fiction publisher in Europe and manages the world, film and theatre rights of major German-language and international authors such as Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Sławomir Mrożek and Patrick Süskind, to name but a few. The subsidiary Diogenes Entertainment, which was founded by Philipp Keel in 2016, is involved in numerous film productions. One current and particularly noteworthy adaptation is the new Netflix series Ripley, directed by Steven Zaillian and starring Andrew Scott, initiated and accompanied by Philipp Keel as executive producer through Diogenes Entertainment. The latest adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's classic The Talented Mr Ripley.

Frank Kroll, Kroll Agency

Frank Kroll has worked for over 25 years in various publishing houses, most recently as head of the Theatre & Media division at Suhrkamp Verlag. In 2015, he founded the Kroll Agency in Berlin and has since focused on the marketing of radio plays and film rights for various highly literary publishing programmes. He is a big fan of the film works of Maren Ade, Pedro Almodóvar, Giorgos Lanthimos and Ruben Östlund. in a new window) in a new window) 

The interview was conducted by Tina Pfeifer, PR Manager at Frankfurter Buchmesse.