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  • Why the Free Option Isn’t A Bad Option

    May 2nd, 2011

    By Danny Manus

    I am sick and tired of hearing people advising first time writers NOT to do free options (or dollar options as they’re often called) when trying to break in. Here’s the deal – if you’re a first time writer with no credits, no contacts, and no representation – what the hell do you think you’re gonna get? A million dollars? It’s never EVER going to happen.

    And if you notice, the people that advise against these free options are usually lawyers or agents. You know why? Because they can’t commission air. And if they could, an agent would find a way. And while they are working for you, they are also working for their commission. Producers, on the other hand, are working for your project – whether they pay you for it or not.

    Some say not to do the free option because if the producer doesn’t have any money at stake (no skin in the game so to speak), they will have less motivation to work hard and get your movie made – what a bunch of bullshit! Anyone who says this — is an idiot.

    Indie producers don’t get paid unless the movie gets MADE – not set up – MADE – so they have EVERY motivation to push hard or else what’s the point? Why would a producer option your material for a year and pour in their sweat equity doing draft after draft for FREE if they are just going to sit on it and don’t think they can get it going? It’s not like they make any money doing that.

    I’ve never paid for an option. I’ve paid for an extension on an option, but never on the original option. Chances are your first option is going to be to an independent production company. It’s rare that you get your FIRST option from a studio, and it’s even rarer if you don’t have an agent or good manager.

    And I don’t know of any independent production companies (unless they have a studio deal) that pay a baby writer to option their first project. And IF they do, it’s not gonna be for more than $1000.  Even if a studio wants to option your project, they don’t really pay more than $5k unless you have a great agent. The exception is if you’re optioning a successful book, graphic novel, etc. –then you can make some nicer money.

    Assuming the person or company offering this free option is an upstanding and worthwhile producer, it’s in your best interest to have him or her on your side, championing and developing your project with you. And believe me, a good producer works just as hard on your project as you do. We have to go through it line by line, draft after draft, and come up with extensive notes plus do the pitching, selling, submitting, etc. Any writer who says execs don’t have to be creative — can go fuck themselves.

    Now, there are some dangers to the free option and you need to do your due diligence and protect yourself!!  But the same can be said about the options you get $5-10k for. In fact, there’s a BETTER chance that if a studio is paying you real money for an option, it could fall by the waist side because they have 100 other projects they are working on and $5k doesn’t mean shit to them, whereas $500 means a whole lot to an independent producer.

    Plus, if a studio offers you real money for an option, it could be because they are trying to bury the project to get it out of the way of a competing project they are already working on with a bigger writer.  This happens WAY more than you think it does.   

    But when you are deciding whether or not to sign with (and work with) a producer, especially on a dollar option, there ARE some things you should research and look for:

    1. Does the producer have a track record of getting movies sold, made, etc?
    2. Do they have the necessary contacts to package a project and get it set up OR do they have access to financing (if they don’t have financing themselves)?
    3. Do they give clear and creatively smart notes that improve the project and do so in a somewhat timely manner (a few weeks IS timely)?
    4. Do they truly love and “get” the project and do you get along with them?
    5. Do they have a PLAN for the project – places they want to submit it to, actors or directors they think are right for it, etc.

    If all of these can be answered affirmatively, then why WOULDN’T you want to work with them? Are that many other people knocking down your door?

    Now, even assuming all of the above are true, you still need to look closely at your contracts and protect yourself.  You need to make sure what rights you are signing away and for how long. Most options last 6 months to 2 years. Anything more than that and I’d be wary because then they COULD just sit on your project for a while. I’d also suggest making sure that if the option lapses and rights revert back to you, that you ALSO get the rights to all the subsequent drafts, notes and improvements that have been made during the option period.  This is where some producers get sneaky, so you should always have a lawyer look at your contract.

    Do you need a signed contract before you do notes? No. And you probably won’t get one.  I never send out contracts until after I get the second draft back because I don’t want to be contracted to a writer that can’t take or address notes or doesn’t know how to rewrite. That kind of writer is useless to an executive, especially at an independent production company where they are not going to hire another big-money writer to fix it. But I’d probably only do ONE draft of notes before asking for that contract.

    Personally, I would suggest that instead of entering into an option, you go for the easier and more mutually-beneficial agreement – which is an Attachment Agreement.  An exclusive Attachment Agreement protects us all – producers are exclusively attached to develop and try to sell your script but you retain your story rights. And no money exchanges hands. I’d suggest pushing for these instead of the dollar option.

    I hope this debunked some of the myths on options that seem to be out there. Just remember — protect yourself, protect your story…but don’t be a diva.

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