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Visual Mindscape: Never Do a Free Option Agreement

I could make this the shortest column ever run in by simply saying; never, never enter into a free Option Agreement. There is never a valid or compelling reason to do so. I don’t care if it is your first screenplay or not, don’t do it.

Have I made myself clear?

free option

One more time for emphasis; never enter into a free option agreement.

The reasons are copious.

Let’s start with you. If you accept a free option what does it say about you and the value you place on your work? All those hours spent creating and writing a feature-length screenplay have no upfront value? Is that the impression you want to give to the industry?

Being a professional is expressed in your own code of ethics and the way you take care and value yourself and your work.

One reason new writers accept free option deals is because in some way it validates them. But that is not true. Anyone offering you a free option isn’t worthy of you defining your own self worth based on their opinion. Validation under these conditions is an illusion.

Now let’s look at those who offer the free or $1 options and what are their qualifications.

To me, free denotes amateur. He or she isn’t really a producer. Business cards are cheap.

One clue that can give you insight into whether this producer knows what he is doing is the Option/Purchase Agreement.

It doesn’t take a lot of brainpower to write up a simple option agreement, but you usually do need to know what you’re doing to draft a purchase agreement or have a lawyer do it, and I don’t know a lot of lawyers who work for free.

So, an amateur producer will disregard the purchase agreement. Nothing screams incompetent louder than an option deal without a Purchase Agreement. No real producer would allow themselves to be put in the position of not having the exact terms of purchase confirmed before entering into an Option Agreement.

If there is no Purchase Agreement attached to the Option Agreement, then this is not the person you want to be dealing with. Why? Because they haven’t got a clue what they are doing.

More likely this ‘producer’ is actually a wannabe who is attempting to be attached to the script and interject himself between you and the true potential production company that actually does have the money to make your movie.

His is a position worthy perhaps of a finder’s fee if the project goes ahead but certainly not the right to an option on your script or worse, attaching himself to the production.

Amateurs seek out amateurs to exploit. Professionals seek out professionals to evolve.

How does a free option request reflect on your screenplay? A free option shows just how serious a producer is about your screenplay. It carries no risk, and as such, it carries little incentive. The only person in this kind of deal who is at risk is the screenwriter, and I will go into more detail about that later.

I have been in this business for over thirty years (Gawd, I need a drink after coming face-to-face with that). For many of those years, I was an agent and manager and represented writers. Of all the free option stories I have heard of over all these years, I have yet to hear of a free option that led to a sale. Not once!

There are several other consequences that can come into play when dealing with shady producers (and I do consider free option producers as shady).

As you have no idea how many other screenplays the producer has free options on, he could be pitching twenty of them just to see if anything sticks. That does not bode well for your script, and you can be sure that he is not giving it the attention that you expected or that it deserves.

This happens far too often even to professionals on occasion.

I had a script that a producer had expressed keen interest in. He told me that he was off to Cannes for two weeks, but while he was gone, he would have his lawyer draw up an Option/Purchase Agreement for my agent that could be finalized when he got back. Negotiations dragged on as they often do.

Strangely, when he returned the negotiations suddenly fell apart.

I was to find out later that he had been shopping the script to the major buyers at Cannes. As he didn’t get any bites, he was no longer interested. He had got a free option of sorts from me, even though I was unaware of it at the time.

Another thing that can often happen if you are dealing with free option producers is that your script gets attached to their reputation. It gets shopped around to numerous distributors and production companies by a producer that no one really wants to work with either because he is inexperienced or because he is an SOB. Either way, once a script has been turned down by a production company it is really difficult to get it back into their pipeline. Your script has lost much of its shine.

Often the producer will attempt to get himself entwined into the very fabric of the screenplay. They make suggestions of changes in the script. They offer a line or two of dialogue, whatever. Now, even after the option has expired, they can have an effect on your script’s chain of title. They can attempt to lay partial claim to the script, and even if their claim is relatively weak, no production company wants to enter into a option/purchase on a script that does not maintain a clean chain of title.

Finally, you must realize that there is a perishable value to your screenplay that is partially protected by a fair option fee. The older the script gets, and the more submissions it has, the less salable it becomes.

The producer is not just optioning your screenplay, they are consuming years of its life expectancy and that alone is worth compensation.

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