When does a script stop being purely yours? By this I mean, does someone's feedback incorporated into the script give them part ownership?
On a basic level, if you get feedback from an agent/reader/best friend, and you incorporate their notes into your script, then all they get is your grateful appreciation (bar the agent’s 10% of course). On a more professional level, if a director or producer or another writer has significantly made a contribution to the development of the script, then they may make legal claims to have their name tagged along side yours in the credits.
It all depends on the development stage of the project, and if you’ve signed a contract that specifies such instances taking place. If your script hasn’t been optioned but a director/producer or writer has been helping you, then it’s open for discussion and/or your discretion whether they should get credited with your work. If your script has been optioned, and the director/producer/writer has meddled with the script (with or without your consent) then it is natural for them to want recognition for their effort. And so begins credit arbitration with the Writers’ Guild (yes the UK office), or amenable agreements between the agents.
Someone’s feedback into your script does not allow them part ownership. Ownership is claimed by the big production company or studio who make you sign a contract that reverts the property to them once the deal is done. There are fancy terms like percentage points and minimum guarantees through the back end (ooh matron!), and this is what you’re likely to receive for all your hard work of actually inventing and writing the story after the basic option/buy out has been completed.
How much should you ask for if a producer wants to option your script? And does 'optioning' a script give someone the right to change it?
In the UK, option fees vary from ‘Free’ to £10k. Options that want to offer you the latter fee are rare. Unsurprisingly, free or very low paid options are the norm. If you’re a new writer and the producer is reputable then it’s not unreasonable to ask for an option between £2-3k. That would be great! However, expect to negotiate an option anywhere between ‘Free’ and £1k. £500 being a common sum. £300 being just as regular. It’s a tough one. They have the power. You want the option. They don’t want to give you the cash.
A typical script fee is £15k where it breaks down something like this: £5k for the option. £5k on delivery of rewrite (first draft), £5k on delivery of second draft. This is a good deal for new writers (i.e. a writer without any credits to their name) in the UK.
As for how much power the person has to change the script once they’ve optioned it is down to the terms of the contract. A common agreement is that the writer gets a first crack at the rewrite that incorporates the producer’s notes, after that, they usually can take it away from you (but also bring it back).
Basically, what's the 'process' once people start getting interested in a script? And how can needy writers maintain their integrity without pissing everyone off?
You’ve slaved for months alone at your computer. You’ve finished your latest script. And it rocks! Or so you think. You send it to your agent and he/she/it makes some positive noises. He wants to send it out straight away, and targets those that she thinks will like it. The producer/exec who receives the script also sits up and pays attention, especially when the coverage comes back with a “Project: Consider” “Writer: Consider” stamped on the report (who knows, maybe ‘Recommend’!).
They get back to the agent. Want to set up a meeting. You get excited. Wear some trendy clothes. Have a shave. You meet the producer/exec. They’d like to option the script. Terrific! You celebrate with your mates. The offer comes in…£150! Boo. The agent goes nuts and negotiates on your behalf. Finally, you agree to an option fee of £500. You celebrate with your mates.
Alternatively, if you don’t have an agent: you finish your script. It rocks! Or you’re not so sure. But hey, it’s got potential, and a producer will see that potential, that’s what “development” is for, right? You flick through the Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book and pick out potential candidates for your epic. The script gets sent out. You wait an age for anyone to reply.
Finally a response. Liked the writing, come in for a chat. Wear some trendy clothes. Have a shave. You meet the producer/exec. They think it needs some work but they’d like to option the script. Terrific! You celebrate with your mates. The offer comes in… £150! Boo. You sign the deal. You celebrate with your mates. And you contact agents to say you’re a hot new talent with one optioned work to your belt already, would they like to represent you? Or better still, approach them once the option offer comes in, ask them to negotiate the deal for you and then somewhere down the line, when you’ve written more stuff or have other offers on the table, then maybe they could represent you full-time…
There’s no doubt that new writers are in a compromising position when it comes to the inevitable changes that the producer/director will want to make to the script. But don’t be too alarmed. The stories of misinformed notes and risible changes are much maligned. There’ll be some clunkers in there but there’ll also be some sound suggestions too. This is where you need to put your ego aside and listen to what they’re saying. Separate the good from the bad, and implement what you think is the good into the rewrite.
And if there’s something that you staunchly believe to be wrong, and you won’t do it, then don’t blow your top: make your case. Convince them otherwise. Explain how their suggestion to have Johnny die in the second act couldn’t possibly work. If all you have to your defence is a petulant sulk because they want to change it, then you’re a needy insecure writer. But if you have a valid argument why it should stay the same, then you’re a passionate professional capable of convincing argument. It’s a fine line but the key is to ‘explain why’ rather than ‘sulk and shout’.