Notes from the Margins: The Dollar Option - Another Viewpoint

The ever-controversial and "no bull" Danny Manus rebuts a fellow ScriptMag.com contributor's opinion on dollar options. Does the price of an option affect your overall ability to succeed?
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By Danny Manus

Last week, screenwriter and fellow ScriptMag columnist Bill Boyle wrote a column about how writers should never ever do the free or “dollar” option. You can find his column here.

Did you read it? Good.

Now forget almost everything he said because, in my opinion, it’s totally wrong.

Imagine this. You work for two years writing and perfecting your project, another year trying to query companies, win contests and pitch it anywhere you can. Then finally – FINALLY – you find a producer who LOVES your project. He wants to develop it with you, he wants to package it, he has a plan for it, he has made movies before, and he wants yours to be next. But you say NO THANK YOU because he’s not willing to pay you $1000.

Does that sound like a GOOD idea… or a bad idea?

free

Is $1000 really going to change your life so drastically that you are willing to give up a chance to make your project a reality?

Your script has a value, but only as much as the market is willing to pay. And if you’ve spent two years trying to get your script going and NO ONE has been interested – then your script is worth ZERO. It represents a great deal to you, but it’s just words on a page like my grocery list, which no one is willing to pay for either.

Bill wrote about the value YOU place on your work. But that value doesn’t matter – it’s the value OTHERS place on your work. Every writer thinks they’re worth a million dollars. Almost none are. And this self-aggrandizing, self-absorbed, delusional way of thinking could cost you your first credit. Yes, writers take free options because it is validating, but it’s also a possible strong first step to making screenwriting into a career. Saying you’re an optioned screenwriter – especially to a well-known company - still means more than NOT being an optioned screenwriter.

Does your time, energy, blood, sweat and tears have a value? Sure it does. But it’s no greater than the producer’s time and energy, and they aren’t getting paid for developing, packaging and trying to sell your project. And guess what – once they DO sell it – YOU get paid and producers are STILL working for free until it actually gets MADE.

Bill wrote about the IMPRESSION you want to give the industry. Let’s examine that. On one hand, by taking a free option you could be seen as someone who undervalues their own work. Or on the other hand, by refusing to take a free option, you could be seen as a delusional writer who thinks they’re too good or too lazy to work for free and doesn’t appreciate opportunities when presented with them and that you don’t value what the producer brings to your project. Which do YOU think is a worse first impression?

It’s simple supply and demand. Every year over 10,000 new scripts are submitted to Hollywood. Some even say 20,000. There's too much material out there which is what devalues scripts in today's market – not producers unwilling to pay. And so the dollar option becomes a rite of passage of sorts. The fact is, if you won’t write for free, the next great idea is right around the corner and maybe that writer will be more collaborative and open to free work.

Perhaps the most ill-informed and downright untrue statement made in Bill’s article is that producers who offer free options are shady amateurs who don’t know what they’re doing. What a load of crap that could not be further from reality. Anyone who says all producers that don't pay up aren't REAL producers is clearly someone who thinks they are too good to work with 95% of the producers out there and only writes for money.

And no offense to Bill personally, but maybe if he had been more open to working with producers and working for free, he might have had even more movies produced over the last 30 years.

I have worked for three production companies. One with a first-look deal with Screen Gems, one with a first look deal with Summit, and one with a first-look deal with financier Millennium Films. And we NEVER paid for an option from a new, unrepresented writer unless there was underlying IP (intellectual property) to the project. Now, there are option RENEWAL fees that we paid once the initial option period ended and we wanted to exercise the option of extending it. But on the initial option? Nope. And the movies my companies have made have grossed over $200M domestically.

Bill said he had never heard of a project that went from a free option to a sale in 30 years. This boggles my mind. I optioned a project called "To Oz" for free and sold it to United Artists and the writer GOT PAID. In fact, he got paid a shit load more than we did, as the project never got made. Our projects Sydney White and Cinderella Story were also free options originally. Both got made, the writers got paid, and now have major TV and film careers! I actually don’t know of any independent producer who HASN’T done a free option. And if you’re only willing to sell to the major studios… well, good luck with that.

The word “option” is actually used to describe a number of different agreements and arrangements. If you are a professional writer and your agent has brought your project to a producer and they attach themselves before going to the studio – it’s technically a free option. If you do what’s called an “exclusive attachment agreement,” which is what we usually did at Clifford Werber Productions, it’s basically the same thing, except you retain all story rights (including any changes we make or suggest), and we put in a floor and a ceiling for the purchase agreement that will come when we sell it. But there’s still no upfront money for you, and it’s still considered a free option.

Bill’s right about a few things though. You should have a Purchase Agreement of some sort along with the option or attachment paperwork. But of all the options that happen in a year, I’d probably say 10% are for more than $5000. And I dare say that 70% are free. So by refusing the free option, you just killed your chances by another 70%.

Are there some amateur bullshit artists out there who don’t know what they are doing and just hang a shingle, offer a free option and call themselves producers? Absolutely. You have to do your due diligence and make sure the producer is for real and can actually DO something with your project. Look at their track record and ask them questions about their plans and their contacts. And if a producer gives you NO notes on your script, then you know he’s just stockpiling projects and has no creative instincts at all. And generally, they should live in L.A. or New York. If some producer in Oklahoma wants to option your project, they better be putting up some SERIOUS money.

Are there producers who stockpile free option projects? Yes, and you should ask a producer how many other projects they are currently developing before signing with them. But there are just as many trust-fund baby fake producers, or former car salesmen who want to be in the film biz, that are doling out option money like candy and doing the same thing. Do those producers have much more incentive than the producer who has to get your movie MADE to make any money? Not really. And they usually have less experience.

Bill is correct that once a producer shops your project around town, if it doesn’t get a bite, it will be harder for you to resell it later. But, the reason you’re signing a free option is because you haven’t been able to sell it anyway. Has your script lost its shine once an option ends and nothing has happened with it? Yeah, maybe. But how much shine did your script have before you signed the option?

I agree that if you are signing a free option (or any option, really), you need to make sure it states that the fruits of the producer’s development labor - notes, changes, new dialogue they’ve added, etc. – are YOURS to keep. You don’t want to lose all the great changes they might have made and you don’t want chain of title problems later on. This is where having a good entertainment lawyer will come in handy.

And if signing a free option, you should try to negotiate the length of the option to be a little shorter. If 18 months is a normal paid option period, then try to get your option down to 12 months.

Now, at some point of course you need to stop doing dollar options. It’s not a great long-term career strategy, and you certainly don’t want to “free option” ALL your projects away. But as a new screenwriter (unproduced, unrep’d, etc.) trying to break in, it may be your only strategy for a little while. And snubbing your nose at the opportunity may cost you much more than an option fee in the long run.

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