You get the phone call, and it goes something like this:
Friend: Hey, are you sitting down? (smile in his voice)
You: Yeah, what’s up?
Friend: I have a producer who wants to option your script!
You: (heart flutters) Oh my god …
Friend: Yeah, he’s an indie producer I know—really talented, really connected.
You: How much for the option?
Friend: (long beat) Well, he wants a dollar option because you haven’t been produced yet. But he’s really connected, and he’s gotten stuff made—so he’s the real deal.
You: (not sure what to say)
Friend: Hey man—he’s a real producer—anybody else knocking down your door?
This is how it almost always goes. I know. I’ve had this phone conversation many times. And we almost always agree to sell our children into slavery for a buck, only because there is a slim chance that the one buying our babies can pull off the impossible and get a movie made. So, we sign over our rights and our labor in an exclusive option (because the producer won’t do an non-exclusive) for a year or a year and a half, and grin and bare it. Maybe this is the lightening we’ve been waiting for that will hit our lottery ticket on our birthday in a leap year? Maybe this guy/gal producer is the real deal? Maybe it’s my turn? Maybe OJ didn’t do it?
But, the question quickly becomes: has this approach ever really worked for you in the past? Yes, there are always those statistical outliers who are the exceptions to any rule, and whose “out of the blue” successes continue to fuel the dream machine for all those who live in the bell curve of mediocrity. But, how many of these dollar options ever convert into paid work? I don’t know any studies on this, but I do know my own experience: NONE.
Think about it. If you consider yourself a professional, and you believe your skill and talent to be valuable, why would you agree to something as amateurish as a dollar option? Try asking your doctor to take a dollar for an expensive procedure, while you wait for the test results. Try asking your mechanic to fix your car for a buck, until you drive it around for a while to see if it breaks again. Try getting your plumber to work for a dollar, while you try to raise the rest of his fees from your neighbors. Other professionals will laugh in your face if you ask them to take a dollar against the future outcome of some risky venture. The only people who won’t laugh in your face are Wall Street speculators who do this sort of thing all the time and which nearly brought down the world economy in 2008.
Also, consider the red flags that a dollar option likely indicate about the producer, the project and the state of the production:
- The producer has probably not raised any first-dollar money for the project; so things are just getting off the ground, which means this is going to be a long haul.
- The producer is too cheap or too poor to put up any money him or herself, which says they like your script but not enough to put skin in the game.
- If the producer won't or can't shell out any real money for the option, he/she probably has a limited passion for the project and this will impact their ability to sell the project. This is a business driven on passion and belief.
- The producer may have credits, but clearly they are not strong enough to raise seed money for an option.
- The producer is not all that experienced, is not in the mainstream of the industry and probably doesn’t have the industry connections to make this happen.
- Negotiating down the line may be difficult, as an unwillingness to pay you now may lead to unwillingness to pay you later.
- You’re screwed if someone with money comes along and wants your script.
As I said, there are always those friends, or even strangers, who mean well and who have every intention of doing the right thing—eventually. But, this is your business. This is your professionalism and this is your blood, sweat and tears. In a business that devalues people as a matter of course, holding onto your power and your self-esteem is critical for building a real career. Dollar options are the kinds of shinny baubles that prompted Dorothy Parker to say, “Hollywood is the only place on Earth where you can die from encouragement.”
Are there any times when it’s okay to take a dollar option? There's really only one valid situation where a writer might take a chance on a dollar option: A producer with no real track record and no money stumbles into a group of enthusiastic investors who on paper appear to have funding, and say they can get to it quickly. Here, a dollar option might work, BUT the caveat would have to be that this kind of option should be very short-term, 3 months max, because if the money doesn't start flowing "quickly," then it won't happen at all. Sometimes you have to gamble to see if people are real, but you don't want to tie your hands and feet with a long option in this scenario. In addition to this one exception, there are few general benefits to taking a dollar option:
- You get the warm-fuzzy of having a screenplay optioned by a movie producer. This can sometimes be leveraged by you for professional purposes. It says, "Somebody likes my work who's not my mother."
- It can build your self-esteem (even as it threatens to take it away!), because someone has showed interest in your work, so this can spur you to keep writing and produce more screenplays.
- It impresses people outside of the business who may think that having an option means your movie is being made (oh, if wishing made it so).
I add these "benefits" only because things are never black and white, good or bad. For something to be real, it must have an upside and a downside. The issue for the writer is to be fully informed so that he-she can realistically assess the balance of the two and make an informed choice. While I think the downside of the dollar option far outweighs the upside, you have to find your own balance and then decide what is in your best interest.
With that said, I believe there are several principled and appropriate options you should consider when offered a dollar option:
- Just say no. This is hard, and it requires gumption, but if you do it you will respect yourself in the morning.
- If you can’t say no, then ask for a non-exclusive option. The producer won’t agree to this, but if they do, then you are free to take a real deal if one shows up.
- If you can't say no, and a non-exclusive option is not possible, then insist on a 6-month option limit. This is enough time for the competent producer to get some traction and find some money for you. If they can't get any traction with investors and can't raise any option money in that time, then you are not locked into a long commitment and can move on. If they can pull it out, then you just extend the option accordingly.
- Ask for at least $1,000 for the option. Most novelists ask for at least $5,000 for a book option (their agents won't settle for less usually), so an indie-spec script is certainly worth at least a grand. This is not so much money as to be outrageous, but just enough to prove seriousness on the part of the buyer.
- Option money is likely the only money you will ever see on your movie project, especially if you are a a first-time novelist or this is your first deal. Take the money and run!
This is not about being right or wrong; it’s about feeling like a professional and standing up for your work. But, if you are not a professional writer (yet), and you know it, but you are crazy-excited that anyone in the movie business even knows your name, then go for it. Learn your lessons early and know that what does not kill you will only make you more cynical in your next deal.
There are plenty of people who will condemn this advice as too hard-assed or cynical. As I said earlier, you have to be the judge and do what is right for you. I would only suggest that you learn as early as possible the most important lessons every writer needs to learn: that you have value, you have a marketable skill to sell, and you deserve to be treated like a professional, or at least as well as a plumber.
- More Story Talk by Jeff Lyons
- Business of Screenwriting: Things a Screenwriter Should and Should Not Do
- Meet the Reader: What Makes a Good Screenwriter?
- Balls of Steel: Dear New Screenwriter
Tools to Help:
- Creating Original Series Ideas and Writing Spec Pilots with Erik Bork, writer/producer of HBO’s Band of Brothers
- Shaping True Story into Screenplay
- The Writer’s Toolbox: Creative Games and Exercises for Inspiring the Write “Side of Your Brain”