by Laura Michelle Thomas, Senior Editor jaBlog!
We are very lucky to be writers at this moment in history. Not only can we sell our work to traditional print media and book publishers, we also have electronic markets which have heralded in an ever-more-dynamic world of self and indy publishing. We have publishing options, and publishing options are great, but have you ever thought about a different kind of option: optioning your original stories for film and television?
I have been hired to write small scripts for animation and corporate web-ads, but the idea of optioning is new to me. I heard about it through a friend who is a freelance script supervisor, who invited me to a workshop called Protocols for Writers at the 10th Vancouver International Women in Film Festival. That workshop was lead by Elizabeth Yake, a Canadian film producer, and owner of True West Films, a film and television series production company. I recently had a chance to chat with Elizabeth to find out more about optioning and what it means for writers, especially those who are not necessarily scriptwriters, but are hard-working novelists, short story writers, etc.
First, I asked what exactly a producer does.
Elizabeth replied that if you imagine the movie business to be like a pyramid, a producer is at the top. She is the boss and develops a project from start to finish: from finding a script and raising investment money, to the release and managing global distribution. This is a process that can take anywhere from 2 to 4 years of intense drive and dedication. As an example, back in 2011, Elizabeth began working on a film titled Hadwin’s Judgement, which premieres at Hot Docs in Toronto this spring and will be released in the fall. Making a film is a multi-year project that requires many human and material resources.
And it all begins with a story, which is where we writers and optioning comes in.
What is optioning?
Optioning is when someone buys the right to (eventually) buy a property (or not). A property is the finished story, which could be in the format of a script, novel, novella, or short story. The person purchasing the option is not necessarily agreeing to ultimately buy the story, but the purchaser is saying that she will pay the writer to have the exclusive right to eventually purchase the story. When a writer enters into an optioning agreement with a producer, the writer can no longer sell that piece of writing to anyone else until the terms of the optioning agreement run out.
How does optioning work?
Let’s say Elizabeth wants to option my novel Polly Wants to Be a Writer. She wants to make a film based on Polly’s story. I own the rights to the book, so she has to come to me to negotiate an optioning deal. If I had sold the rights to Polly to a publishing company, that company would be involved in any optioning agreement Elizabeth wants to make with me. But, in my case, I have independently published the novel and own all the rights. In legal terms Polly Wants to Be a Writer is “the property” which will be negotiated for optioning.
What is negotiated?
What Elizabeth wants is the time to explore the feasibility of turning Polly’s story into a feature film. She has to have time to shop around for investors in the project. She needs time to find a writer who will turn the novel into a script. (Remember, I’m not a scriptwriter by profession, so it’s not likely I would be asked to do that job.) According to Elizabeth, the average optioning terms in Canada are between 24 and 48 months.
If Elizabeth decides to option Polly for 48 months. She would make me an offer of some lump-sum payments which would come to me over the course of the four years (maybe $1,000 per year). Then at the end of the four years, if she wants to go ahead with the project, she needs to pay me a final amount of money in what is called a purchase agreement. The purchase agreement would be written up at the same time as the optioning agreement, so that everyone knows where they stand.
Once we sign the agreements, I am not allowed to make an option or purchase agreement with anyone else. Elizabeth will have the exclusive right to turn Polly’s story into a movie, and that right would be in effect until the termination date on the agreement.
What does the writer get out of an optioning agreement?
Money. And, if the story is purchased, no input on how the film is made or any involvement in the production process.
What does the producer get out of an optioning agreement?
Guaranteed time to develop the project. And, once the story is purchased, the producer has the freedom to hire a scriptwriter and change the story.
How do you find a producer?
Get out there. Submit your work. Have an online presence. Take advantage of self-publishing. Learn the art of writing a one-sentence summary and a synopsis. Be confident and ready to pitch your story. You never know when you might bump into a producer like Elizabeth, who is always on the lookout for the next great story.