Should I accept a free option on my screenplay?

The first tenet of Hollywood — nothing comes free in Hollywood.  If a producer or production company offers you a free option, it shows you how serious they are about your script.  A free option carries no risk, but spending money to option material raises the stakes.  If you accept a free option it shows them how you view yourself and talent.  You want others to see you as the impression you give them.  If you view yourself as a professional and act like one in attitude and action, others will believe it as well.

A few years out of film school, I was circulating several projects and trying my best to navigate the choppy waters of Hollywood when I secured my first option.  It was for my spec screenplay and the producer paid me about enough for a nice trip to Vegas for the weekend.  That’s exactly where I went to celebrate with my girlfriend to spend the money.  I had my first paid writing job and it felt good to finally be walking the steps of a professional.  The option was for six-months with provisions to renew, but the producer showed me that he took my work as serious as I did by spending money to secure it.

Don’t allow your excitement about someone’s interest in your script to get the best of you.  Interest costs nothing and talk is cheap in Hollywood.  Anyone can offer a free option and if you are an un-credited or un-produced writer, it might seem valuable to have a producer interested in developing your script.   An exclusive free option takes your script off the market for a set amount of time and you can no longer shop it yourself.  The risk you take is that you’ll miss other possible opportunities that may arise because your script is now tied up with just one producer.  An option ties up exclusive rights to your project and that is worth something.  A free option has no risk to the producer only to you.

If you’re offered a free option, counter with an amount that you feel is fair and equal to the risk that you’re taking by allowing your script to be taken off the market.  The producer will always counter and probably cut it in half, so pad your offer accordingly.  Hopefully you will find an agent or lawyer to negotiate your deal and they will know the marketplace and factor in your experience and the project’s value.  If you do have credits or produced films, it will make it easier for your handler to convince a producer to pay something.  Paying for an option will show just how serious the producer is about being in business with you.

If the offer of a free option stands then walk away from the deal.  Free denotes amateur and you want to be perceived as a professional.  Part of acting like a professional writer, even if you have never been paid, involves your work ethic, manner and the actions you take.  If you go in acting like a professional, it’s really the only thing you can control – yourself.

Before you tie up your project, look at the producer or company’s credits and experience.  Do they have credits or a proven track record of produced films?  Do they have any of the financing in place?  If they are new to the business, do they have solid contacts and are diligently moving forward with your project, or when you call three months later, there’s no movement?  Take everything into consideration before you lock your screenplay into an option agreement.  You have the right and the duty to say “NO” if the deal is not in your best interest.

Writers don’t usually start by selling their first script for a million dollars.  It usually takes years of continued success and hard work to reach a level where you command a quote for your work.  And in these rough economic times, Hollywood’s business dealings with all talent has changed across the entire industry.  Some big writer’s quotes have dropped considerably.  One A-lister’s reduced quote is another struggling writer’s dream.  It’s all relative, but free is still free.

When my first option expired the producer didn’t renew, but luckily another company optioned my script and eventually went on to produce it into a movie.  It was a long road, but another example of the patience you must learn as a writer and the professional manner you must constantly exude.  Make sure your contract states you retain “all rights” to all versions of your script after the agreement expires.  You don’t want the producer or company to still own their versions of your script they developed under the agreement.  If the contract expires and they did not execute the option to buy your script, you walk away free and unencumbered with all rights.

Nothing comes for free in Hollywood and your option shouldn’t either.  Make them pay you something and you’ll be taken seriously as a professional.  A paid option makes you’re a working writer and you will need an entertainment lawyer,  so find a good one and let them handle the pesky details of the deal.  You stick to the writing!

“Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.“—Jules Renard

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