OBTAINING SHORT STORY RIGHTS
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.