Was Aaron Sorkin high when he gave this interview? Sorkin, writer of the upcoming movie The Social Network (a biopic about the troubled and complicated genius behind Facebook ) is the troubled and complicated genius screenwriter behind so many great movies (The American President, A Few Good Men, Malice) and television shows (Sportsnight, West Wing). Nice interview. (Think magic mushrooms….)
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How’s this for a deal:
(1) Upload your script (or feature length film) to Amazon.com
(2) Give Amazon a free 18 month option
(3) Amazon lets anyone in the entire world rewrite your script (or re-edit your film) to try to sell their version
(4) You hope to be picked out of the millions of scripts (and films) to win some dough and a meeting with some real live Hollywood studio executives.
If this is your idea of a great deal, then Amazon Studios is the place for you.
Joseph from Los Angeles asks:
A production company has shown interest in optioning my script. They seem very enthusiastic, but have little experience as producers and want me to option my script for free. I have looked at a few sample options online. However, since this would be my first option, I still have a few questions.
1) They mentioned when I met with them that if they are able to set up a deal with a studio they would like to purchase my script for a flat fee (as opposed to a percentage of the film’s budget or script’s selling price). If they state this in the contract, what would be a reasonable fee to pay to a screenwriter who is un-produced? Should I even agree to such a deal or should I hold out for a percentage of the film’s budget or a percentage of what the studio pays for the script? What is to keep them from stating in the contract that they will buy the script from me for 50 grand, but in a year’s time they find a studio that is interested in buying it for 100 grand or more?
2) During the optioning period am I allowed to use the script to try and get an agent or writing assignments?
3) Is the option agreement my only time to negotiate or do writers usually re-negotiate with the studio once the screenplay is sold? In other words, do I need to take care of re-write clauses, sequel rights, screenplay credit, etc now or will this happen once the script is actually purchased?
I plan to find and meet with a lawyer once I get the contract (which should be within a week) but would like to iron out the contract as much as possible beforehand because I am of limited income.
Thank you very much.
(Standard disclaimer – this is not legal advice, just thoughts on a blog.)
Congratulations on getting interest in your screenplay. Chances are, others will be interested, too.
Your questions present common dilemmas for beginning writers. Many writers (including me) feel that the producer should always pay something for an option. If they were WGA producers, they would be prohibited from asking for a free option. Why should a producer (especially an inexperienced one) have the right to tie up your screenplay for a long period of time without paying you anything? What do the producers intend to do during that time? Based on what they have told you, which is that they want to set it up with a studio, they do not really even need an option. If they want to present your script to studios, you can give them permission to do that without an option. Let them tell you who they wish to take it to and, if you want them to submit it, give them permission to submit it. Then, once they present it, you are free to negotiate your own deal as they are free to negotiate theirs. This is a common practice in the industry; it happens every day.
If, on the other hand, they intend to “package” the project themselves (which means, they intend to raise money and attract talent, director, and distribution without a studio), they should pay you money up front, especially if they have never packaged a film before. This is not a matter of greed or materialism on your part. Rather, it is a reality of the producing business that producers lose interest in projects when the next best thing comes along. They are not lying to you when they ask for the option. They are just under a tremendous amount of pressure to find the right project and, two months from now when they have gotten nowhere with your project, they are likely to feel they have a better shot with something else. If they have paid you money, they have a much stronger incentive to keep working on your project instead of jumping to the next thing. In addition, at least to a small degree, you are compensated for the lost opportunity.
If the producers are as excited about your script as they say they are, they will certainly not let it get away because you ask for a few thousand dollars up front. If your request makes them go away, that should tell you something about their real level of commitment.
As for the answers to the specific questions you asked:
1. If you enter into an option, percentage of the budget deals are not very common. A good place to start for your writer’s fee in the event the option is exercised is 110% of WGA minimum with negotiated bumps for specific events, which can include budget bumps, sole writer bumps, and box-office performance bumps. (For example, if the budget exceeds $75 million, you get paid an additional $250,000.)
2. If you enter into an option, you should make sure before you sign the option that you are entitled to present the script to agents and for writing assignments. If not, you should be compensated at the time you enter into the option for this additional loss of opportunity.
3. The option agreement is ordinarily the only time you negotiate your fees (and credits). If you enter an option, you should make sure it is a deal you can live with if the option is exercised.
by Cole/Haag, CMC Publishing
Cole and Haag set the standard for script formatting decades ago and their legacy lives on. The Thinking Writer thinks the forward to this book alone is worth the price. Understanding the basic ideology of script formatting has significant impact on narrative, from understanding how pages translate into screen time to learning how to write down the page instead of across. Cole and Haag also save the committed writer from the falacy of word-processor formatted scripts. Automatic formatting is a great time saver, but understanding formatting is critical to taking intelligent control of your narrative. What formatting options are available that your computer does not automatically throw out? Many, and they are carefully covered in this essential reference work.
Someone was kind enough to share with this blog the Fox Searchlight URL where it also has nominated scripts posted, but your comment was sucked away by my sometimes arbitrary spam filters. I saw it disappearing too late to rescue it. If anyone has the link, please share it. You can send it to me on the questions page if it does not post when you submit it.
UPDATE: Per Christina (see her comment), here is the URL for Fox Searchlight Scripts: http://www.foxsearchlight.com/awards/ Thanks. They have another great collection, including “JUNO”, “Waitress”, “The Darjeeling Limited” and some others.
What makes you think you know how to write? Because you’ve written a pile of unproduced, unsold screenplays?
Screenwriting is very technical writing. It is scrutinized in a way other writing is not. It is evaluated in a process that comes with mountains of baggage, none of which is designed to be helpful to training the aspiring writer and much of which is very subjective. Because of this, an aspiring screenwriter can cling to the belief that he or she knows what he or she is doing with no evidence whatsoever. Rather, the writer blames rejection on a million other factors – not having a good connection, not living in L.A., another similar project beat you out (even though you were never even remotely on the radar of the buyers in the first place), Hollywood is wrong about what makes a good movie (that’s my favorite one), you are misunderstood, and on and on and on. Never that you’re writing just isn’t yet good enough.
At a storytelling level, the elements that make a screenplay work are the same elements that make any story work; they are just embedded in the most technical dramatic writing in the world.
So, here’s a thought. Take a big step back. Forget about selling a screenplay or selling anything. Forget about three-act structure, forget about formatting issues, forget about number of pages. Instead, focus on telling a great story.
And tell it in prose….
That’s right, prose. Simple narrative. Just tell the damn story. Whether it is short story length, novella, novel or ten volume opus. Feel free to delve inside the characters’ minds, have soliloquies, reveal internal thoughts, do everything you can’t do in a screenplay (or do none of it – you’re the writer). Just make sure you tell a great story.
And let the story be personal. I don’t mean write about your childhood or the girl who just left you. I mean, make sure you think about what it is you want the story to say, what points of view you want it to reflect, how you want to shape the reader’s experience of these points of view. Make this a story no one else could possibly write – only you.
Here’s what you’ll get out of it. First, you’ll have a story that is more easily accessible to qualified readers, a story from which you can more easily get a body of solid feedback. You will find out where your weaknesses are – at least the fundamental storytelling weaknesses. Second, even without feedback, you will learn a tremendous amount about your writing. You will discover things you have to say, how to say them, and what is important to you as a storyteller. Third, you will improve as a storyteller simply from having made the effort to tell a great story. You will not have the excuse of structural challenges or any other technical issue. It is just you and the story. Fourth, you will take a big step towards developing your own unique voice. And that voice – your voice – is really the only thing you have to sell Hollywood. Anyone can learn the technical end of screenwriting. Only you can tell stories with your voice. But you must find and develop that voice or you are just copying better writers and you will fail. Writing in prose is a terrific way to develop that voice.
So, write something else. Write a story, write a novel, write an opus. It will be worth it, I promise. When you’re done, Hollywood will still be there. You can dig into your next screenplay with a new zeal and, perhaps, some new insight.
Now go write.
(And, by the way, it is no harder to sell a well-told unpublished short story or novel to Hollywood than to sell a screenplay. If you do a great job on the story – you have something else to market.)