Hi everyone.  I hope the past seven days have been positive and productive. Last week we discussed motion picture options, and I promised that this week we’d dive into strategies on how to negotiate and acquire your own options.

Over the past 17 years, I’ve acquired the “exclusive option rights” as a producer to everything from novels to screenplays, magazine cover stories, and the life rights to some seriously interesting people. Thus, today I thought I’d share a few tactics designed to help you excel in the “option game.” While this article will focus how to option a novel, feel free to apply these tactics to any kind of material you wish to option.

Over the past several decades, an unusually high number of films based on novels have won Academy Awards and many of them have won the “Best Picture” Oscar.  Thus, turning novels into films has proven to be a wonderfully healthy marriage for both studio films and independent films.  So, without further do, here are tactics to help you land an option of your own.

Contact The Publisher First
Every author has agents and managers who handle their motion picture rights, but those agents and managers will want nothing to do with you unless you have a laundry list of produced credits, a studio deal, fat bank account, or at least two of the three. You can’t really blame the agents and managers though. They’re just looking out for their client’s best interests, and their client’s best (financial) interests probably don’t jive with the amount of money you’re willing to offer.

However, by contacting the publisher, you may be able to get the author’s contact information or you may be able to send the publisher a letter or e-mail that they can forward to the author. The key is to find a way to be in direct contact with the author, because without having loads of money or an A-list actor or director in your camp, having the author’s blessing is the only way you’re going to land the option.

Build A Case For Yourself When You Speak To The Author
Assuming you get your “one shot” to contact the author about his or her book, you better be ready to tell him or her why you’re the right person to bring their book to the silver screen. Since it’s unlikely that the amount of money you can offer (if any) is what’s going to hook them, your “take” on their book and your plan on how to get it made is your best chance to get the author on your side. Remember, without having the author firmly in your corner, you won’t land the option on their book.

Engage The Author In Development, But Be Careful!
Giving the author associate producer or co-producer credit, or allowing them to take a crack at adapting their book into a screenplay will go a long way toward creating good will with them. However, doing so is also equally dangerous.

For example, beware of offering the author more than associate producer or co-producer credit, because if you do, the entity that may want to finance the book-to-film venture might kill the deal just because they’re not willing to give the author what you guaranteed them.

This is also the case when you guarantee the author a sick amount of money. Thus, regardless of how much the financier, studio, production company, or distributor wants the project, they will turn it down if you promised to pay the author $1,000,000 for book rights that should have cost $200,000.

Regarding having the author adapt their own material, remember that authors have a tendency to turning in 200-page scripts (the average is 95-110), because they have trouble editing their own words. The best way to navigate this situation is to make sure you don’t promise the author their screenplay will be the screenplay used to make the film. Of course, you can have the best intentions to use their version, but nobody outside of a studio head or an owner of a heavily financed mini-major production company can guarantee that any given script will be the one used in production.

Make Sure That “Time” Is On Your Side When Negotiating
In the event you that a studio, financier, distributor or A-list element wants to execute your option and make the film nine and a half months into a 12-month “exclusive option period,” do not, under any circumstances, let them know that your option is expiring in two and a half months. In fact, when asked, you should tell the powers-that-be that you have the option for “a year or two more.” The reason for doing so is if they find out you’re losing the rights to the project in a few months, they’ll simply wait for your option to expire, so they can buy the material directly from the author. Don’t kid yourself, no matter how nice and professional the powers-that-be are with you, if you don’t hold the option to the material, they will cut you out of the deal within seconds.

Furthermore, in the event you land a major element at the tail end of your option period, you should contact the author immediately and attempt to extend the option. Remind him or her how hard you’ve worked to get their project to a stage where a huge element is about to get involved and let them know how quickly the powers-that-be will dump you if your option runs out before the purchase is completed.

Also clarify with the author that extending the option period is to help make sure you don’t get screwed, and not because you need two more years to sell it. Remind them they need you to remain in the deal, so you can make sure they get everything you promised them in the option.

Set A Sale Price Based On The Final Budget
Since you’re probably not paying an enormous amount of money for the option, the author’s windfall will come upon the execution of the sale of the book rights. While you’ll want to reward the author for believing in you with a ton of money, you have to make sure the sale price remains within reason so that the buyer will agree to pay it. Thus, the best resolution is to adjust the sale price based on the final budget. Simply put, the author should make more for their rights if the book turns into a studio film, and they should agree to less money if their book turns into an independent film or cable film.

While acquiring the option to the right novel, screenplay, or other creative source material will bring you legitimacy, respect and ultimately money, it will not bring you any of those things in a timely manner. Optioning a literary property and then having it developed, financed, produced and distributed will take years to decades, not weeks to months. So, before you take the first step down that treacherous road, make sure you’re equipped with an abundance of patience, positivity, and really comfortable shoes…

I hope you had a wonderfully relaxing MLK Day, thank you for lending me your eyes and I’ll see you next Tuesday!

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  1. Bwakathaboom says:

    If you’re dealing with an autobiography, how do “life-story rights” work into it? Should you secure both the rights to the book and the person’s story?

    I’m thinking if an indie biopic is moderately successful then an unscrupulous studio may want to remake the same story as a mainstream film, doing an end-run by ignoring the book and securing life-story rights instead.

    On the other hand, I’ve seen opinions that life story rights are dubious at best and may not hold up in court and therefore aren’t worth negotiating.

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