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Guerrilla Screenwriting: Unscrupulous Producers and Script Options

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After a conversation with an ex-student of mine who's a writer, I felt compelled to do this article to warn fellow writers about a particularly nasty and dangerous species of animal that roams the Hollywood jungle – low-budget producers. They thrive on taking advantage of naïve writers and stealing their hard work.

low-budget producers

To help you identify these creatures, I’ve compiled a list of common traits to watch out for:

  • He insists that you sign a release form before sending him your script
  • He asks for a $1 option to “shop” your project around town
  • He says he can get your script to big name actors
  • He constantly talks about all the powerful people he knows in Hollywood
  • He has some “investors” in Texas that will finance your movie
  • For lunch meetings, he takes you to a cheap restaurant
  • After you sign the contract, he magically stops returning your phone calls and emails
  • He keeps you in the dark throughout the development process
  • He and his buddies will strip-mine your script, changing just enough scenes and characters to qualify for WGA credit as a co-writer

Does any of this sound familiar? If so, you may be in bed with a true snake and I suggest you remove yourself as quickly possible from his presence. Believe me, nothing good can come out of dealing with people like this. They will eat your soul for breakfast.

I’ll give you an example that illustrates the kinds of problems that can arise when dealing with these types of bottom-feeders.

Two years ago, a writer I know optioned his screenplay to a producer for a 2-year option period for a low amount of money. The two years went by quickly and the producer wasn’t able to secure the movie financing needed to cover the agreed upon minimum script purchase price of $75,000. During the time the producer controlled the material, he didn’t really accomplish much in terms of satisfactory forward progress toward getting a feature film made. No paid rewrites were done. Only one B-list actor was attached.

Throughout the entire process, the writer’s desires and creative input were ignored. The producer reneged on every verbal promise he made and treated the writer with contempt and disrespect anytime the writer offered to help or inquired about the progress of the project.

When the option finally expired a few months ago, the producer contacted the writer (after previously being silent for over 6 months) and wanted to renew the option for another year. He said he was “close” to raising the financing from co-producers and investors and needed more time to work his magic. When asked about details such as company names and talent attachments, the producer would not give the writer any specifics, just more “smoke and mirrors”.

Because this producer had been such a jerk, the writer was hesitant to continue doing business with him, despite the alluring promises of future riches. The writer conferred with his manager, and decided it might be worthwhile to shop the script around town to other potential buyers, preferably bigger producers who had a better chance of actually getting a movie green-lit with name actors.

When the writer declined the old producer’s option renewal offer, the producer was royally pissed. Harsh words and accusations were exchanged. The marriage was over.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with how the Hollywood system works, if a movie rights option expires with one producer, the writer who owns the underlying copyright can freely re-sell the script to somebody else. That is one reason why they have option purchase agreements in the first place, so that the writer is not a slave forced into a marriage forever just because a producer pays him a little upfront money.

There is a long, well-established history and legal precedent for the standardized contractual process that protects artists from unscrupulous producers. The option purchase agreement is a sacred instrument, battle-tested for decades and reinforced by literally thousands of similar script and book option deals past and present. Every option has an expiration date. It's a ticking clock.

But for some strange reason, this particular producer thought he could somehow circumvent standard industry norms. He thought American copyright laws didn’t apply to him. Of course, this is absurd. He had absolutely no valid legal ground to stand on because under the terms of the agreement all rights automatically reverted back to the writer on the day the option expired. However, that didn’t stop this guy from threatening to file a lawsuit when the writer tried to setup the project with another production company.

Mr. Snake Producer found out the movie was being shopped at the Cannes Film Market by a new producer to raise foreign pre-sales money, and he sent the new producer and the foreign sales agency they were working with a nasty email claiming that he still owned the rights to the source material and they would be caught up in a “legal mess” if they proceeded further with the writer’s project. He also claimed the writer breached an “implied verbal agreement,” promising the producer that he’d get to produce the movie. This unexpected legal complication spooked the sales agent who promptly removed the writer’s movie poster from the company’s website and Cannes advertisements until the writer could prove he had a clean chain of title.

Stunned, the writer didn’t know what to do, so he contacted an entertainment lawyer for advice. After reviewing the case, they reassured him he had nothing to worry about in the long run, but that wouldn’t prevent the crazy, vindictive producer from suing him and interfering with any future production.

Apparently, this is a fairly common practice in the entertainment business. Threaten a lawsuit to force people into giving you what you want. Civil court litigation is expensive to undertake for both the plaintiff and the defendant. It’s also stressful and time consuming. Like a mafia thug, this producer was trying to do a classic shakedown with his vague, hazy threats, hoping to scare the other party enough that they’d do a payoff settlement just to make him go away.

If you’re repped by a major agency, and a producer pulls this kind of threatening, sour grapes crap, the agency would likely blackball him in town and never send him a script again or allow their actors to be in his movies. If you don’t have a powerful agent or entertainment attorney to help protect you, you’re at the mercy of the sharks who will bully you into submission with threats and lawsuits.

It’s your choice if you want to fight back or give in to these predators. As a warrior at heart, I say FIGHT them. Don’t allow them to intimidate you, no matter what they say. Be fearless. Never show weakness. If you’ve truly done nothing wrong, and you’ve been honorable in your business dealings, justice will prevail in the end.

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