Writers and filmmakers: movie option rights

filmmakers

Lets’s say you’re a published author who has just had a stroke of luck; someone wants to buy the rights and turn your humble little book into a film. Now if you’re playing with one of the big boys, Bloomsbury, Random House, or Penguin, you don’t have to worry about a thing. There are highly trained professionals dealing with that side of things, preventing you from getting shafted and ensuring that you make a tonne of money.

But let’s say you were like me. 23 years old (at the time), with about 300 sales through a small publishing house. How do you then deal with film people, who show a sudden interest in your book?

I still don’t know. But here’s what happened to me:

About six months after the release of my debut novel, Playground, my publisher was able to bring it to the attention of a small TV production company. My publisher’s idea was to get me interviewed on one of the TV shows so I could promote my book. But what happened was the producer’s wife gave a copy to the director of the company, who read it and liked it. He then gave the book to a film director, who also happened to think it was pretty good. For the purpose of this article, the director of the company will be called Steve, and the film director will be called Mike.

Then I get a phone call from my publisher that went something like this:

Me: Hey, how are you?

Publisher: Yeah, I’m fine. Listen, Steve really likes your book.

Me: That’s good.

Publisher: In fact, he wants to turn it into a film.

Me: Jesus Christ! That’s great. Make it happen.

I had my doubts then about how seriously I should take Steve’s proposal; after all it was only worth the paper it was written on, and as there was no contract as of yet, I didn’t get too excited. I only had one major issue – I knew nothing about what I should expect, money-wise, and neither did my publisher as Playground was, from what I understand, the first book published by her company that had been considered for adaptation. I later learned it was to be the TV company’s first feature film.

At the time I was interning at a traditional publishing house (who I later edited for), and I told the director about the situation. He said, “photocopy one of our film contracts and take that to the meeting with you,” and so I did.

First of all though, I met the film director who would have the job of turning my book into a film. We met in a cinema bar in the west end and talked for two hours about how the film should be made. He was completely enthusiastic and loved the book and knew it probably better than I did, which made me feel great as you can imagine.

In the meantime, my publisher was getting her lawyer to model a contract for us based upon the contract the director at the publishing house I was interning at allowed me to photocopy.

Eventually, we went for the meeting in the bar above the big Waterstones in Piccadilly Circus: Me, my publisher, Mike, Steve, and a woman who was apparently a script supervisor and a casting agent. It was all very nice.

Steve, the TV producer and director of the company said, “We want to turn Playground into a horror film. Do you have any objections against us choosing someone else to write the script?”

I didn’t actually want to write the script because all I wanted to do was work on my novels. So I told him, “Get the better man to do it. My job is done.”

We all had beers and wine, shook hands, and went our separate ways. We were to get a contract over to them in a few days regarding us selling the film rights, and then they would get the funding.

Initially, the production company tried to give me a contract that we felt was slightly unfair. I got a staggering £1.00 for the option rights (you read it correctly, ONE POUND) so they could work on it for a year. After that, I got a percentage of box office and DVD sales. There were other technical bits and pieces but I can’t really remember them all as I write this. It was mostly percentages of things.

When we saw the £1.00 option fee, we felt it wasn’t quite right and then sent a reviewed contract to them. The new contract that we worked on basically gave us everything we believed we were entitled to based upon an existing book adaptation contract. They said their reason for the £1.00 option fee was “just to make it legally binding,” but I felt that it was just a cheaper way for them to have my work.

We wanted a proper option fee of £1000.00 for the duration of one year, 5% of all box office receipts and DVD sales, and the legal right to have my name featured on anything tied in with Playground. Also, they would be buying the rights to make a film only and no sequels without my consent.

Upon seeing the new contract we presented with them, they felt that our new terms swayed the contract too much in our favour and weren’t willing to sign. So we reached a stalemate. Nothing moves for almost a year.

During that year, though, I happen to get lucky again, because a film agent reads my book and wants me to sign a six-month contract for her to work on selling the rights on my behalf, for a ridiculously cheap cut of 12.5% of the total option fee. I jump at the chance and want to sign it, but then something interesting happens.

The original production company got in touch with my publisher and said something like: “Hey! Long time no speak. We still didn’t sign any contracts so I’m hoping we can do that and begin filming soon.”

No problem, I say. Sign the contract we proposed and you have a deal.

Their response was something along the lines of: “No this isn’t a fair contract. Everything is in your favour. We were thinking more along the lines of simply making a film and giving Sam a percentage of DVD sales.”

By this time I was angry and frustrated with the whole process. Of course I was thrilled at the idea of having my book turned into a film, which is surely every author’s dream, but the contractual details were so draining.

To cut a long story short, the film didn’t get made and the rights were never sold. I signed the contract with the film agent, but despite her efforts, nobody was biting. Perhaps we left it too late, or perhaps we were the only ones that thought it might make a decent film. In any case, I’m no better off now than when I started the whole affair. Except I now know how to handle this kind of thing in the future, should the opportunity present itself again.

Moral of the story, take everything with a pinch of salt and don’t start writing things on Facebook like “oh my god I’m so happy my book is being turned into a film!” until the ink is dry otherwise you end up looking like a complete loser.

Like me.

SAMUEL BONNER

Samuel BonnerSam works as a marketing manager for Indepenpress and has written novels such as Playground and Someone’s in the House.