Should I expect a payment for the option rights to my book?
April 17, 2009 5:17 AM   Subscribe

I've had a book published and been approached by a film producer wanting to option the film rights to the book. He's sent a draft agreement but there is no fee involved. When I questioned this the response was that this was standard practice for a book that is 'not a known branded property'. I gotta be honest me and my book are about as unknown as its possible to be but should I still expect some sort of fee for this.
posted by wggrace to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I have no expertise here, but does it boil down to this guy wanting you to give him something for nothing? Because if that's what it is, why would you do that?
posted by jon1270 at 5:23 AM on April 17, 2009

Yea, I gotta agree with jon1270. Though if you've been published, do you have an agent who might know more about the market here?
posted by raf at 5:24 AM on April 17, 2009

(My girlfriend, who knows a lot about publishing, says the guy is full of crap. The norm is they pay you for the option and then never make the film.)
posted by raf at 5:25 AM on April 17, 2009 [9 favorites]

Should I expect a payment for the option rights to my book?

This is a complete no brainer. YES should expect payment, doesn't matter how unknown you are. Granted you won't get the millions that a Stephen King type could, but you should get something.

Shoot for a bit of cash upfront and percentage of gross, not net, NEVER NET, profits.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:31 AM on April 17, 2009

Whatever "standard practice" is in this guy's universe, it's not relevant to you. If your work is for sale (or option), and he's not paying, then no deal.
posted by Rykey at 5:34 AM on April 17, 2009

Also, check your publishing contract. Do you even have the film rights or do they? You should call your agent - this is exactly why you (should) have one! If you don't have an agent, I'd start with calling your publisher to see if they can recommend one.
posted by mikepop at 5:34 AM on April 17, 2009

I would guess that if this guy says/believes that this is standard practice, it probably means that he's not willing to pay for his source material. So while I wouldn't go for it, I'd expect it likely means that the deal is off if he can't get it for free.
posted by winston at 5:35 AM on April 17, 2009

I am guessing this guy thinks you're an idiot.

You're not an idiot, obviously. Call your agent and/or lawyer.
posted by jerseygirl at 5:49 AM on April 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Have you checked out this film producer's IMDB page? How legit/experienced is he?
posted by nobody at 6:01 AM on April 17, 2009

One option when dealing with a producer that doesn't have any money is to cut a "Progress to Production" deal, where you give him a free option and in return, he has to hit certain thresholds toward getting the film made by certain dates. If he fails to hit those markers, then he loses the option rights. This is a decent option for you, since it ensures that he's actively working on your project and when he stops, you get it back. (Obviously, there should be certain thresholds at which you get paid, like as soon as anybody else gets paid.)

Of course, that doesn't change the fact that this producer probably doesn't have the wherewithal to get something made. Check out his credits. Maybe he's just starting out, in which case you might want to get a small amount of money or a Progress to Production deal that strongly favors your rights. If he's done movies before, he's trying to exploit your naivete. But, the great thing is, if he's successful, then an agent is going to jump at the opportunity to cut the deal for you.

Ultimately, the "get an agent" crowd is right. If you can get someone to negotiate for you, it saves you a lot of headaches. Don't give anything away for free, ever. The Progress to Production trade off is that you give the producer a free option in exchange for a promise of genuine effort - not as good as a straight sale, but a lot better than nothing.
posted by paperzach at 6:07 AM on April 17, 2009 [5 favorites]

This film producer is shady as all hell.

(1) Stop talking to this guy.

(2) I feel like you're not giving us enough information here--if you're working with a literary agent, then she probably has a film agent she regularly works with, who handles the film rights for the properties she represents. If you're not working with an agent--which would almost certainly mean that you're either on a small press, or self-published--then you should look into getting representation if film producers are calling around, shady as they may be.

(3) Have you done due diligence on this guy? If he's claiming to be a producer, does he have any credits?
posted by Prospero at 6:08 AM on April 17, 2009

On post-preview: given paperzach's advice above, I'll retract my statement (1) above, but (2) and (3) still hold.
posted by Prospero at 6:17 AM on April 17, 2009

You know what you have to do to publish a book? Sure you do. You did it. You have to write it, you have to get through a very tough gauntlet of gatekeepers, any one of which could kill your book on a whim. It's a brutal process that winnows out the weak.

You know what you have to do be a producer? Face toward Hollywood (optional) and say "I'm a producer." That's literally it. This guy's trying to act like he's doing you a favor because he comes from, ooh, Hollywood (sparkle). He's not. You're the one that's higher on the pecking order here (although as a writer, no one, NO ONE, will ever actually admit that). You've got the product he wants. You'd be doing him the favor.

So yeah, you should get paid and paid well, or else you should just hang on to your book. The worst thing that will happen if you take this deal is not that you won't make any money off it. It's that, if a real offer comes along from somebody that really wants to make this thing, you won't have the rights. You'll be in bed with this guy and he'll end up making more money than you do just because nothing can happen without him.
posted by Naberius at 6:17 AM on April 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

Well, it's an option, which just gives him the exclusive right to buy it later, probably after he puts together the rest of the pieces (screenwriter, director, etc) to sell it to a studio. He wants to go out and sell it, but he can't do that comfortably unless he knows others are not out selling the same work, or he could get shafter.

Options usually last for a year or two until they expire (check the terms).

I'll just guess this guy is one of those folks who goes around buying up options, screenplays and rights so that he can bundle and resell them later. Picking them up for free is a bit much, but again realize it's just an exclusive opportunity to buy later that he's getting here, not the rights to the book or any film.

But raf's point should not be missed: when you option rights, it's not just about the cost of that option, it's that you've now blocked anyone else from making a film based on that book for that period of time. So you're "selling" your opportunity to make a different deal for awhile.

So no, don't do it for free, but realize it's not supposed to be millions, either. You want to be compensated for the opportunity cost of a year or two passing in which you cannot make a different deal.
posted by rokusan at 6:22 AM on April 17, 2009

I can understand paying for well branded stories. I can't understand not paying for good stories. There is a lot of good advice in these answers. Here is my advice:

"You can bullshit a bullshitter." This guy sounds like a bullshitter. Have fun with it.

Welcome to Hollywood.
posted by snowjoe at 7:18 AM on April 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

The whole point of an option is to secure the right to make the movie. It doesn't mean you're going to make the movie. It only means that no one else can.

What would be the point of giving that away for free?
posted by lampoil at 7:34 AM on April 17, 2009

Get an agent, stat. This is what they're for. Is your book self-published or was it done through a publisher?
posted by ocherdraco at 7:37 AM on April 17, 2009


It's seriously in your best interest to hand all of this stuff off to your literary agent. S/he can get a film agent to negotiate on your behalf, and when it comes to film rights you really, really, really need one.

Film rights are complicated. They have a lot of strange and arcane rules, there's a lot of terminology that may or may not mean anything to you, and you seriously need somebody versed in LA-ese to negotiate for you. You do NOT want to be put in the position Kim Basinger was when she stepped out of a role in Boxing Helena- she was sued for 8 million dollars on a handshake deal, guys. And she lost.

For serious- the only thing you should say to a producer who contacts you is "Thanks for your interest! Let me put you in touch with my agent." Period. Don't say how much fun it would be, or what rights you think are available, or that you'd love to have a movie made- nothing.

"Thanks for your interest! Let me put you in touch with my agent."


That said, here are a handful of terms that will help you understand your film agent, and help you articulate what you would like out of an option:

Approval, Script/Cast: Means you get the final say on the script, or the casting. Unless your name is JK Rowling, you're not going to get approval.

Attachment: Somebody famous who wants to make your movie. This can be anybody, but it's usually an actor or a director. If your film agent wants to go attachment shopping, s/he's looking for somebody famous who's willing to agree to be in/make this movie. Still doesn't mean they will actually be in/make the movie. It's just a means of generating interest and funds.

Back End: All the profit from a finished film product. You want back end participation (ie, some of that money from the profit.) And you really want it off the back end gross if you can get it.

Blind Option: Somebody wants to option your property, but doesn't want you to tell people about it. Could be they're doing something underhanded, like sniping a property from a frenemy, or they don't want anyone to find out they're about to do a shift in tone, or they simply don't want to publicize a purchase- it's just something they're buying as an asset. Blind options kind of suck, because you get no PR from them. Then again, it's still free money that renews itself on a regular basis, so it's a suck that soothes itself.

Consultation, Script/Cast: Means they will ask you what you think of the script/cast. If you say something that makes them happy, they might even do it.

Credit: How you get credited is complicated and the rules for crediting are set forth by various guild contracts. As a writer, though, the credit you want for film is Executive or Co-Executive Producer. You get more money; they might listen to you about certain aspects of the production, they'll make sure you get invited to the premiere.

For television, you want Created By (money!) and Executive Producer or Co-Executive Producer (money and they might listen to you, or consult with you on the production.) Other credits you could end up with instead would be Based on a Novel/Series By, Story Consultant, Creative Constultant or Story By. (Less money, probably less involvement- courtesy titles.)

My People: Your film agent and your literary agent. It's totally legitimate to tell a producer who snuck up to your back door to talk to your people.

Property: What everybody around you will be calling your book. Once someone adapts your book into a screenplay, that will also become the property.

So, that's it from me for today. Have fun, good luck, and DON'T TALK TO THE PRODUCERS.
posted by headspace at 7:49 AM on April 17, 2009 [13 favorites]

Also, PS, I can tell you right now that there's a deal in the works for a young adult novel, not branded, not TWILIGHT by any stretch of the imagination- still being offered 15k/first 18 months, 10k every 12 months thereafter or $350,000 outright purchase. Not branded. Debut author. YOU SHOULD EXPECT PAYMENT!
posted by headspace at 7:56 AM on April 17, 2009

The "get an agent" crowd are right, although you could also use an entertainment lawyer- they are the ones who usually end up poring over the contracts anyway.

As a minor quibble, I have never heard the term "film agent" before. In Hollywood "literary agent" is used to mean someone who represents screenwriters.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:49 AM on April 17, 2009

Anyone I know who has a book optioned -- and I know a few -- gets paid. End of story. Talk to your agent. Don't talk to this "producer." He's a craphound.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:19 AM on April 17, 2009

to piggyback on NEVER NET - the guy who played darth vader hasn't made a dime past his initial payment because george lucas (and his merry team of lawyers) have managed to say that return of the jedi has made ZERO net profit.
posted by nadawi at 9:51 AM on April 17, 2009

Are there (very limited) circumstances in which a no-money-up-front option might make sense? Sure. However, anyone who would represent that such options are "standard practice" is either a bald-faced liar or absolutely ignorant of how anything works. This offer is not only to be ignored, but is not worth any investment of money (to get a lawyer) or time and connections (to get an agent if you're not otherwise at the career stage where you would be able to get one, and need one, in any event).
posted by MattD at 10:09 AM on April 17, 2009

okay. now that everybody has had his or her say, let me tell you the truth. I'm a produced screenwriter in L.A. Last month, I sent a producer an idea with a book. He liked the idea and wanted to option the book. I called the authors, found common ground and we put thier agent and my producer together. They agreed to an option on an option. Now, he can go out and drum upo interest in the movie based on their book and my script. If the book sells AND the script sells, they get option money and story credit money and I get story and script credit/money. If just the book sells and they bring in another screenwriter, same deal for them; I get story credit and maybe an associate producer credit.
If, however, the agent or the authors had said 'no', the producer would have said 'fine' and moved on to the next project where he wouldn't be dealing with such tightwads. I would have sent him another book on the same subject until we found somebody reasonable and trusting WHO WANTED TO MAKE A MOVIE AND GET RICH.
I trust my producers completely. His reputation is flawless. If he ever ripped-off anybody for a dime, his name would be mud around town and he'd never make another deal. Same with me- if a deal gets made, I'm 100% confident that I'll be taken care of.
You could take the advice of those above...who might or might not have ever been in such a situation. I'd look at the producer's rep and credentials, sure. You're not a screenwriter, so movies probably aren't important to you. If you don't want the money or fame or connections, say 'no', and God speed
posted by flowerofhighrank at 10:34 AM on April 17, 2009

wanting to protect your intellectual copyright does not make you a tightwad and anyone (in any profession) who makes promises (or threats) in all caps of GETTING RICH!! with no signed contracts are scamming you or hoping you're dumber than they are.
posted by nadawi at 10:42 AM on April 17, 2009

Nthing to double-check your publishing contract - you may not even hold the rights.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:20 AM on April 17, 2009

AND WITHOUT AN AGREEMENT IN WRITING TO PROTECT YOU IF THE PROPERTY GETS SOLD whoops, sorry- it would be very dumb to give an option for free. That, however, is the reality of my situation. The authors I'm working with realize that there'll be no sale if they demand money up front. If my producer had to pay whatever an author asks just to shop the property around to see if there's any interest? He'd go broke. If a buyer is interested, the authors of the book will get paid twice. In your case, maybe never- it'd be like me trying to sell your car for you without your permission. To eah his own. I think I'm going to end up with a sale. I hope you do, too.
posted by flowerofhighrank at 11:53 AM on April 17, 2009

If my producer had to pay whatever an author asks just to shop the property around to see if there's any interest?

Well, your well-known, well-connected producer is using his good name as his collateral and his connections as his value-add. But if the OP's "producer" is just some random guy with no reputation or connections, cash money may be an acceptible substitute. That's the point of sussing out whether this guy is for real.
posted by blenderfish at 12:00 PM on April 17, 2009

Do some research, and counter-offer. You can shorten the option time, ask for money if the there's any action on the book, etc. It's yours, it would be fun to see it made into a movie, and you can negotiate. This does have the air of a scam. This guy may end up trying to get you to invest in a theoretical movie.
posted by theora55 at 3:15 PM on April 17, 2009

okay. now that everybody has had his or her say, let me tell you the truth. I'm a produced screenwriter in L.A. Last month, I sent a producer an idea with a book.

Dude, you have one credit in 1995 for a tv show. *I'm* a produced screenwriter with a badly updated IMDB profile too, and I'm also a published author with Random House. And I'm just gonna chime in here again to say:


Period. The only time it works like this is when people want to try make money and cut the author out of it. Literary agents get co-film agents ALL THE TIME, because the lit people know New York and the film people know LA.

And they don't give away the rights to their properties, because the properties are valuable. You're trying to become the attachment screenwriter on someone else's novel, and guess what? You are not valuable as an attachment. You have one tv credit that's more than ten years old. And I can say that, because I've had over 400 short films produced in 15 years, with ten of them winning Oscar eligibility. And I would be a bad attachment.

You're not telling the truth. You're telling what you hope is the truth, because this:

If the book sells AND the script sells, they get option money and story credit money and I get story and script credit/money. If just the book sells and they bring in another screenwriter, same deal for them; I get story credit and maybe an associate producer credit.

Is not how it works. Nobody cares about an unpublished manuscript. They BARELY even care about books that have been sold but are still in the Review Copy phase. Reputable production companies want FINISHED COPIES of published books, so they know what they're actually getting. My novel lost 20,000 words from sale to publication. What kind of producer would buy a property that isn't even done.

But you have successfully attached yourself like a leech to someone else's book, in the vain hopes that you can feed off of them should, for some bizarre reason, they actually manage to sell this book with a tick of a production company and screenwriter stuck behind their ear.

So, wggrace, my suggestion to you is that you ignore the tick. You're welcome to e-mail me if you want more information directly from me. Or you can simply remember the one golden rule in writing:


If it ain't flowing, don't go.
posted by headspace at 3:16 PM on April 17, 2009 [6 favorites]

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