I’m starting work on a screen adaptation of a 1965 short story, but I’m concerned about obtaining the screen rights. Should I approach the author’s people myself, or should I just go ahead and write it and leave obtaining the rights up to the production company if (um…I mean WHEN) my script is sold?

Also, would obtaining the rights myself lock me into being the only person allowed to write the script? Or would that move end up pissing off some important people who might be interested in the story?

Alan – Norfolk, VA

It is always a good idea to know the status of rights before you begin an adaptation on spec. In the case of a short story from 1965, if it has not previously been made into a movie, the rights might well be available and you might be able to secure them for a nominal fee. You may even be able to secure an option for no up front fee.

Do not worry about pissing off important people. If a studio or other buyer wants to purchase your adaptation, they will require you to assign your rights in the story to them at that time. In the meantime, you want to control the story rights. Otherwise, they may read your adaptation, decide they like the short story but would rather just obtain the underlying story rights (which you do not control) and go directly to the source. They would then hire a more experienced writer and start with a fresh draft based on their notes. Even though you turned them on to the story, you would be left out completely.

I personally would not adapt a short story without controlling the rights. However, beginning writers do it all the time. If you do, you should be aware of the high probability that your script will be a writing sample only. That is not a terrible reason to write a script, but you may want to write something you can market in and of itself. Without control of the underlying rights, you have no way to know whether your work will be marketable even if you do a terrific job on it.

For those who have never secured story rights, here is the short course. If you have direct access to the author, start by talking to him or her. Otherwise, if you do not have any direct leads, call the publisher. You may have to do some Internet research to find out how to reach the publisher since the original publisher will likely have been purchased by someone else by now. Publishers usually have a department to tell you who holds rights. Once you reach that department, make sure the person helping you understands you are looking for rights to adapt the story to a motion picture. They often think you merely want to republish the story, which is a different kind of rights. This department is also usually able to give you information on the author’s representative whom you can contact. If the author is dead, you will have to deal with an estate, which is also sometimes complex. However, none of this is too difficult. It just takes time and patience.

Unless the short story is very popular or was already made into a film, you should not have to pay much to secure at least an option on the property. Make sure the option is for a period long enough to write the script and get it sold or get the picture put together in some other way. If you believe you will write the script in under a year (four to six months is the norm), I would recommend the option period to be at least five years.

Good luck with the story.


  1. I’ve been in the business for twelve years here in LA. I am all for writers adapting obscure material on spec, and worrying about the rights later on.

    What you should do is, first determine whether the rights are available in the first place. If they are, find out who controls them. If it’s a rinky-dink producer, s/he may give you a shot to adapt the material if he likes your take and if you have a good sample. You’ll be working for free, but it will be to yours and the producer’s mutual benefit, since you’ll be writing a project that someone will soldier for you.

    If a major producer controls the story, contact them and see what they say. Don’t be discouraged–projects get developed at a ratio of as many as 20-1 at studios, so just because something is in development doesn’t mean you’re sunk. Not at all.

    If the material is available, go ahead and write the script, make a plan for how you’re going to try to set it up, and THEN call the agent back and ask for permission to run with it.

    Now, having said all this, BE STRATEGIC about what material you choose. If you want/need a year’s time to put the project together, because it’s a subtle, somber little heartfelt drama you’re going to have to put together independently, you’re f’d. The agent won’t care and won’t give you permission. You’ll have to option the story in order to control it.

    But if it’s a higher concept idea with a studio sensibility, that could go out as a spec script in Hollywood, then all you need is someone to take the script out for you, and about a week’s time. The lit agent may even help you get an agent in LA, in that case, because the lit agent can see the money.

    If you have someone to take the script out on spec for you, then you can call the lit agent and say, “Listen, I know the rights to this story are available, I wrote a spec based on it, with your permission, so-and-so is going to take it out on spec next week.”

    If the lit agent says no, so what. Take the script out on spec anyway, and let the lit agent say no to Paramount who’s offering a five or six figure option on the material.

    Again, your best bet is to adapt a horror or sci fi or high concept comedy idea–make sure whatever you’re adapting would be appealing to a studio. Otherwise you’ll need too much time to put the project together, in which case you better just go ahead and option the story.

    Good luck.


  2. Ben:

    Thanks for sharing your point of view on this. It is somewhat different than mine and I offer the following words of caution.

    1. In my opinion, a writer should not do free drafts for producers except under very specific conditions. First, the writer should have a very strong belief in the producer’s ability to get the picture set up and should believe in the producer’s story sense. It is always a waste of time to work for free with producers you do not believe in. On the other hand, it can be a good experience working with a producer you do believe in. Second, if the producer controls material that the writer wishes to adapt, the producer must make some real commitment to the writer in exchange for the writing. Preferably, the producer should pay the writer, even if it is only a small upfront fee against more if the picture gets made. At a bare minimum, the producer must make some commitment to pay the writer if the underlying material is produced whether the writer’s script is ever used or not. Otherwise, the writer could end up writing a script for free the producer does not like and being left out completely.

    2. I’m not sure what you mean when you say:

    Don’t be discouraged–projects get developed at a ratio of as many as 20-1 at studios, so just because something is in development doesn’t mean you’re sunk. Not at all.

    If someone else already controls the material you wish to adapt and is already developing it, you are wasting your time to do parallel development. They own it; you do not.

    3. It is very difficult to take a script out as a spec. For those who do not know, “taking a script out on spec” is different than writing a script on spec and simply shopping it over time. Taking it out on spec means obtaining an agent experienced in putting scripts out on the spec market and having that agent put your script out. The script goes out to all interested buyers in strategic fashion, but essentially they all see it at the same time, and they make a relatively immediate decision. Most scripts taken out on spec do not get purchased. Taking a script out on spec is not something any agent can do and it is not something the writer can count on happening unless the writer already has a reputable agent with spec experience. Even if the writer does a terrific job, most agents are less likely to agree to take out an adaptation on spec where the writer does not control the underlying rights. This kind of a script is not the best calling card to obtain representation.

    Obviously, there are no absolute rules and my point of view is just a point of view. However, in my opinion, a writer should choose his or her projects carefully. Each one represents a significant commitment of the writer’s resources – time, creative energy, and even money (since you are writing instead of getting paid). Each project should be selected to maximize the writer’s chances of getting an agent, getting a sale and getting a career. Adapting material you do not control just throws more roadblocks in your way. Unless you have some special reason to do it, I would consider another project.

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