Options, Sales and Production

A few people have asked me how I manage to sell and option so many short scripts.

Others have shared their experiences of optioning/selling scripts, and their frustrations regarding what happens next.

Or as is often the case – what fails to happen next.

As a result, I thought it would be useful to take a look at both sides of the coin, and share my experiences and info gleaned from other writers.

In this piece, I’ve strived to be as ‘full disclosure’ as possible without discussing individual deals. And please keep in mind, that each deal is different, so your mileage may vary!

Sales and Options

According to my calculations, I’ve written close to a hundred short scripts, seven features and a couple of TV pilots.

Of the shorts, 20 or so have been filmed, with many, but not all, having been made available online at some point or another. A further 15 of them are currently sold, or under option.

I say ‘currently’ because at least the same amount have been optioned in the past but not proceeded and the option has lapsed, some of my scripts have been optioned four or five times and still not made it to production.

Of the Feature scripts, I’ve had three of my specs optioned (all currently lapsed) and one that I wrote for a Producer in India filmed and briefly released – even appeared on Netflix for a few weeks.

So, let me clarify what I mean when I use the terms Sales or Options.

Option: Someone wants to make your script and you agree with them to let them try and pull the resources together to make the script within an agreed-upon window – normally 6-24 months . The agreed Option means that you stop marketing your script for the duration of the agreed timeframe and essentially take it off the market.

Note: The longer the option window you agree to the longer your script is unavailable for, so think carefully about what you are happy to sign up to.

There are two types of Options, the first more common with short scripts.

Unpaid Option – You agree to allow a Producer to attempt to make the film with no monies changing hands, common with shorts and Student filmmakers and the like.

Paid Option: A fee is paid to Option the script for the agreed window, usually the option fee is 10% of the estimated sale fee. E.g. if you agree to sell a script to a Producer for $10,000 then an option fee may be $1000. The Sale fee is usually specified and contained within the option agreement and is paid when the film starts production.

Note: You may also come across something called a Dollar Option, this is where someone wants to option your feature script for a very nominal fee, usually $1. Ask yourself if you genuinely believe the Producer who is offering you $1 can make a feature – if you think they can then go for it, otherwise stay well clear.

Sale – Outright sales are uncommon with Feature scripts, as most deals start with an Option and become a Sale when the film goes into production and the second part of the fee is paid.

But, occasionally, and again more frequently with shorts, someone may just cut to the chase and buy the script. E.g. they buy the rights to make your script for a set amount, no option fee.

So how do you get paid?

I get asked this a lot for shorts as writers seem shy or worried about it.

So, when talking with a Producer or Director, I simply ask if they have a budget for purchasing the script, then go from there. Why? Because I strongly believe a writer’s work has value. We spend time, effort and emotional energy on every script we create. So we deserve to be compensated whenever it’s possible.

What’s the worst can happen? The Producer may say “Sorry I don’t have any funds to buy/option the script” at least you will know and it may help set expectations for the production should you decide to proceed with the deal.

With this approach I would say I get paid something on 60% of my shorts and all of my Features.

The actual Contract and agreements, I tend to play by ear and work with the Producer to structure a deal that works for both parties. And, when payment is involved, there’s usually a contract.

For Shorts I think it’s fine to do this yourself, you’ll find sample contracts online, experienced Producers will likely have one they use and the agreement may be just email or a signed PDF. Whatever works best for both parties. Never be afraid to ask for what you want, or say no, or walk away if you don’t like the deal – it’s your script.

With Features, entertainment lawyers or your agent (if you have one), should be engaged to make sure everything is okay.

As to what contracts contain: that’s always different!

For me, the essential elements are these:

  • What rights are you granting to the producer? e.g. Sole and exclusive, region specific or worldwide?
  • What does it extend to? e.g.: is it just this script, or does it grant rights over sequels, remakes, etc (you should definitely try to keep these rights.)
  • Try and retain rights to the script itself, so that you may re-exploit it at a later date with a different filmmaker – particularly for shorts.
  • Make sure the contract specifies how long it’s to last for, most relevant with Options and make sure you keep track of these dates so you know when they’ve lapsed.
  • Make sure the agreement covers what credit you will receive on the film and IMDB.
  • Make certain all payment terms and amounts are included – plus timings and delivery mechanisms of the payments.
  • Ask for a profit share, a couple of % should the film make a profit.
  • If in doubt about a clause, seek clarity before you sign.

Pre-production Frustration

So for those who’ve sold/optioned scripts and now wait in limbo, often with no updates from the filmmaker. Please believe: I feel your pain!

But in the end, there’s very little you can do. Producers and Directors are not doing it to you on purpose (as much as it may seem that way). No, there’s a whole host of reasons it can take a while before an optioned script goes into production.

  • They have a window – which just so happens to be 6 months away.
  • Their plans change. Many short film-makers have other jobs. Your short is just their passion project, which can only be done on their off time.
  • Resources and/or finances change. Or disappear.
  • They flat-out change their mind.

Of course, none of those reasons make the process any less frustrating… however how valid they may be. My advice. Patience is a virtue. Practice it. Often and wisely.

As a side note: it’s often interesting to see how willing or unwilling the film maker is to involve you in the process. In my experience, I’ve had audition tapes sent to me for my review. Rewritten scenes as required. Advised on prop selections, etc. Even if the producer prefers you take a ‘hands off’ approach, there’s no harm in letting them know you are keen to work with them, if desired, so as to better understand the process.

Post-production

But once a script is finally produced, everything comes up roses.

Right?

Well kinda. But not really. Among other things you’ll learn about (drum roll)…

Post-production.

Post-production is where a lot of the magic happens. Film editing. Sound effects. Colour correction. Music, titles, credits. And more.

Needless to say, that can take awhile. So you’ll need to practice your patience again.

Please don’t interpret any of this as a complaint. If I didn’t think it was all worth it, I wouldn’t have written all those scripts and wouldn’t still be writing them.

But it’s good for writers to be aware of the potential bumps in the road and factor them into your expectations.

Thank God – The Damned Thing’s Filmed!

Yes, that day has finally come. You’ve been sent a Vimeo link, or a DVD of your film. Now you can relax and soak in compliments from your jealous friends.

Right?

Well. Sorta. But then you watch the film – and your over-critical ID chimes in.

Because, unless you directed and edited the final movie, it’s very, VERY likely it won’t be exactly the same as what you envisioned in your mind’s eye.

Reasons for changes are unending. Budgetary concerns. Dialogue can be altered. Casting may not be your taste.

And make no mistake – there’s nothing you can do about it… unless you morph into a Director, and insist on making scripts your way.

So focus on the positives!

  • You conceived a great idea.
  • You had the creative skill to distill your ideas into a successful script.
  • You had the gumption and fortitude to get that script into the hands of a real film maker, who thought highly enough of it to invest time, effort and money to make it a reality.

As a result, you’re now watching something that has your name in the credits. You’re a produced screenwriter, which is no small achievement. No matter how arduous the journey was.

Unless that doesn’t happen and the film, despite being made, never comes out publicly. I have a few that this has happened to, I’ve seen the film but I may be the only one who has ;-(

Not a lot you can do about that one either.

Hopefully, you will Option and Sell a bunch of scripts, and hopefully the above will prove useful.

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