Almost all writers dream about their book becoming a movie. Vivid images of Hollywood dance in our heads – big picture screens, premiers, stars, money, and notoriety. But moving from book to screen is a complicated process. Film and TV producers must corral numerous financial, creative, and business components (one of which are your dramatic rights) in order to develop and produce a finished product for the screen. In fact, the process can be so complicated and protracted that a movie industry friend of mine once said, “These things rarely pan out.” But that should not stop us from dreaming, right? After all, what would we do if we could not dream? My motto: Dream Big or Go Home.
So, for the big dreamers in the crowd, here is a snapshot of how books, magazine articles, short stories, and even unpublished works land a motion picture or TV deal.
One of the first steps a producer makes when developing a project for the screen is to obtain control of the story rights. The usual legal vehicle for this is an option contract. The producer options the exclusive rights for a specified time to develop your creative work and determine if there is any interest in adapting the work into a film before the producer commits to purchasing the work. The option puts money in the writer’s pocket in exchange for putting the book rights on hold during the negotiated time period.
- Typically, a standard option is for 18 months but can be as little as 6-12 months. Often the standard option can be renewed once or twice. These renewable periods should be shorter than the original option term, with the standard renewal being no more than 12 months.
- The writer gets paid for each option and renewal. Often the option fees are more than the author received for the book advance and sometimes more than the royalties paid. The option price depends on the material being optioned and the writer – notoriety, popularity of the work, and a producer’s desire for the project will obviously drive the price up.
- An option starts around $500, with $50,000 being on the high-end. A good gauge is 10% of the purchase price (see below).
- The fees for renewals tend to be higher than the first option. The reason is demand. If there is interest in the project, the renewal option is exercised. Plus, renewals require a writer to put the story on hold for another negotiated term.
3. Dramatic Rights Optioned
- The contract language should define with specificity the rights being optioned.
- Producers will want as many rights as possible tied into the option, i.e. not just the right to the make the film but also the right to make sequels, TV movies, series, and if they can get it, merchandising and advertising rights too.
- For the writer, it would be financially beneficial to option only motion picture and TV rights, and retain other rights like print, electronic, audio, sequel, merchandising, and dramatic stage rights. Any rights retained by the writer can be negotiated for royalties at a later date depending on the project. Some producers might require that you not exercise those retained rights for a specified time period (most likely until after the movie release date). This is called a “hold back.”
- Negotiate the option renewals to be contingent on the producer hitting certain markers tied to forward movement in the production of the project. For example, the option may only be renewed if financing has been secured and/or the necessary people are attached to the project (director, actors, and screenwriters).
4. Termination and Reversion
- The option should be clear about termination and reversion of rights when the producer decides not to purchase the rights or renew the option within the specified time periods. In addition, it would be beneficial to the writer if the contract language requires the rights to revert automatically to the author if the adaptation has not been produced within a specified number of years.
At the end of the option period and the renewals, the producer must either drop the project or purchase the story rights. If exercised, the rights in the creative work will then be transferred via the purchase agreement. Usually, the purchase agreement will be negotiated in tandem with the option agreement.
Because budgets are producers’ worst nightmare. If producers believe a project has potential, they need to be certain how much the project with cost, which includes the cost of the option and purchasing the story rights. The last thing producers want when making a film is to have large, unforeseen costs that ramp up expenses and blow out their budget.
- The purchase price will vary considerable depending on the project. Usually it will be based on a percentage of the film’s budget with a cap.
- A good gauge is 2-4% of the production budget. If the budget grows, the producers have the insurance policy of the cap. So if the budget is $5 million, then the purchase price might be $150,000 for a 3% of budget price with a cap of $225,000 should the budget grow.
- The fee for films will be larger than television, which range between $25,000-$50,000. If the project becomes a series, payment is per episode (lucky you).
- The option fee is usually applied to the purchase price. The renewal fees, however, are usually not.
2. Net Profits vs. Gross Profits Options
- Some producers will offer a writer a share in the film’s “net profits” in lieu of a set purchase price. A percentage of profits sounds enticing, but net profits in the movie industry will always be less than zero. A better option, if you can get it, would be a percentage of “gross profits,” between 2-5%. A gross profits purchase price should put a writer in a good financial position under the contract. A percentage of gross profits could also be used in combination with an upfront purchase price depending on the project and how the contract is negotiated.
Maybe I should say, the lack of creative control. Do not be surprised if the author is required to give up creative control once the work has been purchased.
- Hollywood tends to stick with their own screenplay writers (although it is not unheard of for an author to write the screenplay…dream big).
- Rarely does an author get final approval over the creative content in a film. Such creative control is left to the big fish authors (again, dream big).
- Some contracts allow authors to consult with the adaptation process, but this is not typical (okay, enough said).
Do you need an agent to secure a film or television option?
- An agent makes the process smoother because the agent will negotiate the option and purchase agreements on your behalf.
- If you are traditionally published, your literary agent will coördinate with a film rights agent (sometimes both are in the same agency) and the two will split the commission. Some literary agents are savvy enough to exploit the film rights but typically, a film rights agent should be used because of their expertise and connections.
- You do not have to be traditional published to have a film rights agent. Self-published authors can query film agents directly.
Has your creative work been optioned for film or TV? If so, how was the process for you? We would love to know.
Legal Disclaimer: This information is provided for educational purposes only. Consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction for all legal opinions for your specific situation.