Dude, Where Is My Screenplay Option?

There used to be a time – in the not-too-far-off-Hollywood-past – when a screenplay option was part of standard operating procedure, and the first step to an eventual sale. Those were the days when a writer wouldn’t consider doing rewrites or even taking notes without paperwork in place. In a world of studio deals and potential spec sales, it was all about closing the option – or better yet, the sale – and getting “commenced.” Those were the days when screenwriters right out the gate and no matter how green insisted that they be compensated for every word written or rewritten, for every page or act or sequence turned in. But boy, have things changed. Today, roughly 20-plus-years after the spec market boon, and almost 10-years following the famed WGA strike that changed the game, I continue to have writers tell me that they will do “as many rewrites as the producer wants” once they have a well-paying option agreement on their hands, if not a straight-forward six-figure spec sale. The only problem is… while we continue to hear stories about how it used to be back in the good old days, today’s Hollywood operates within a very different landscape.

Before I continue this any further, let me quickly set the record straight: This blog post is not coming to claim that writers have no right to want or request compensation for their work. I am not suggesting that writers should be taken advantage of, or do their work for free while others pocket the loot and get rich off them. All I am saying is that while writers should, of course, aim to get paid for their work, the reality is that in today’s industry, it’s not always quite as simple as it was in previous decades.

In order to understand this, we have to look at how things have changed. In the early 2000’s, and specifically as far as film is concerned, development funds have dried up, and still today, have yet to be effectively replaced. European film funds, which funneled significant Euros and Pounds into Hollywood, folded up and went away. As a result, development departments throughout Hollywood shrank, or were outright eliminated. Popular positions such VP of Development or Creative Exec – once found at every production company – became coveted, competitive, almost exclusive to studios, and very hard to get. The less-than-flattering term, D-Girl (Development Girl) so popular in the 90’s and early 2000’s effectively went away as development positions were no longer prevalent. And independent producers, once fortunate enough to have development departments powering them, started doing most – if not all – of their development work themselves.

All of the above translates to this simple reality for many an emerging screenwriter looking to land their first paying deal in the industry today: Most work done by most non-studio-producers trying to get new projects off the ground these days is done on spec. Fewer and fewer producers are holding studio deals, and therefore have less funding to lean on when it comes to developing new work. Even production companies fortunate enough to have secured POD (Production Overall Deal) or First Look Deals with studios and mini-majors have had the amounts awarded for such deals sliced and diced every which way, which means that they have to keep doing what they’ve been doing and that much more for significantly less. For new writers who have yet to have garnered the sort of work that would allow them to establish a quote for themselves, that means that producers and executives will often have them develop their material ad nauseam in order to ensure that when the material does indeed go to market, it stands a fighting chance of going all the way. Which it so say that today the $1 option is more popular then ever. Yes, there are occasions when writers are granted an option with some modicum of pay. But often, for first time writers, the fee is not going to be significant.

Not only did this drying up of development dollars effect the availability of compensation for rewrites on the writer’s own work for writers seeking to break into the industry today, it is equally visible in the marketplace itself, where spec scripts are just not moving in as steady a pace. While we do on occasion observe the sort of head-spinning spec sale (such as Melissa London Hilfer’s sale of her script UNFIT in just 3 days), which implies that the market is still alive and well (especially when Paradigm’s David Boxerbaum is behind said sale), the reality is that most scripts that go out into the professional space today rarely find a home until an attractive package has been cultivated for them. Therefore, the onus of the work has once again been put on the shoulders of the producer, or just as often the agent or manager, without any guarantee for pay. Not only does the writer have to get the script 100% ready, he also has to get it packaged with actors and/or a director if he has any hope of not only getting compensated, but also having his project go before the cameras and see the light of day.

“They’re making fewer movies.” Manager Jeff Portnoy, who most recently moved the script THE KEEPER OF THE DIARY in a high profile spec sale, told me of studios when I interviewed him for my upcoming book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES. “Which means they’re actually turning down packages and that’s why they’re not buying specs. If they’re turning down packages with A-list directors and actors attached, why would they buy a spec screenplay?”

But I digress. Or do I? All of this is to establish one simple reality: With significantly less money available for development today, everyone, including producers, agents and managers, are required to develop material on spec. Because of this, if the writer does not have a pre-established quote, if the material is not coveted by multiple powerful companies, or if the writer doesn’t have the sort of high-powered team behind him or her that could successfully make such demands, he is likely to be asked to do the same, i.e. develop his script alongside the interested producer or manager in order to ensure that the script will to become everything that the producer, agent or manager believes it can be in order to get the movie made and the writer compensated. Where in decades past hefty options were given to writers whose projects producers had hoped would “get there,” today those same options and shopping agreements are not often granted before the producer or executive involved is convinced that they have a ready-for-market, winning property on their hands.

While many writers may understandably lament this, and argue that being asked to work for free is just not right, there is something that every writer looking to push forward their screenwriting career and reputation should remember: Developing your screenplay with a producer known to the professional space can benefit you in more than one way. Of course, it would be great to get your movie made. After all, that’s what most feature writers are after at the end of the day. But beyond that, should the screenplay garner a great deal of attention and industry interest,there’s a good chance you will have many new doors opening before you. Doors that will become instrumental in helping you get paid on this particular project or the next.