OPTION OR NO OPTION?
Chris from Victoria, Canada asks:
I am working as an associate producer for a company wishing to produce their first movie project. We have identified the content and now working with a writer to develop the script. We are looking into various types of option agreements in order to secure rights and ownership of this project. Do you have any suggestions and or website links that would explain the best way to make this relationship with the writer win/win and make sure we have everything covered. I am using “The Producer’s Handbook” as a bible at this time.
Your question leaves unclear whether the material you have identified is a draft script you wish to option and ask the writer to rewrite or whether you are assigning the writer material to write at your direction. In either case, the best way to make the relationship win/win with the writer is:
(a) make sure you have a writer you strongly believe in, and
(b) pay the writer a reasonable sum for his or her services.
If you are hiring the writer to prepare a screenplay based on material you are assigning, you will need a writing contract, not an option. You also need rights to the underlying material. An option may not be the best way to secure the underlying material since you are paying to have a screenplay prepared which will be worthless if you do not exercise the option. Usually, if you are moving forward with preparing screenplays based on underlying material, you want to own the underlying material rather than merely option it.
This is also true if you want a writer to rewrite his or her own screenplay for you. Whether you option it or own it, you should pay the writer for his or her services rewriting it. Often, if that is your intention, you would rather own it than pay for rewrites and lose the right to the material because your option lapses and you are not ready to move forward.
Occasionally, you will want to simply work with the writer to make the script better without any ownership in the material other than, perhaps, an informal agreement that if the writer gets the material up to the level you wish, you can present it to specific sources for consideration with you attached as a producer. This kind of agreement is sometimes appropriate for a beginning writer who is willing to do rewrites at your direction without pay. From the writer’s perspective, the writer should not agree to this unless: (i) the writer really believes in your notes, (ii) you have a proven track record, and (iii) the writer retains all rights to the screenplay including any improvements made by your contribution. If you want anything beyond that, you should pay the writer a reasonable fee for any writing services.
You can find forms for screenwriter agreements, including options, in the book “Contracts for the Film & Television Industry (2nd Edition)” by Mark Litwak, available through most major books stores and Amazon.com. The WGA’s website also has contract forms if you are a WGA signatory.