Thursday, July 27, 2006

Deal or No Deal

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’.


Chris Parr (ukscriptwriter) said...

I have sold a grand total of nothing (and have not tried yet), but I was wondering what the general situation would be and what I could expect.

I have to admit an option value of £150 would not impress me. I could spend more than that on the train fare down to London to meet the exec. £150 may put me out of pocket (but I suppose I'd have first stab at any re-write).

If I do get optioned and get the first re-write, will I always be paid for it?

Can they say "You have not understood our notes and missed the mark. We will not pay, and you can't do re-write number 2 either"?


Chris (ukscriptwriter)

Chris Parr (ukscriptwriter) said...


Good post.


Danny Stack said...

The contract should state where the writer will get paid during each stage of the development process BUT they do have you by the nuts.

They can indeed say: "You have not understood our notes and missed the mark." And might follow it up with: "We will not pay you for another rewrite, but if you wanted to have another go at it, for free, then we'd be happy to read your revision."

Or if the contract allows: "We're giving re-write number 2 to another writer".

It all depends on the contract, their level of power and your willingness to keep the project alive...

Lucy V said...

It's a strange thought that as a commissioned writer writing bizarre things like college prospectuses, adverts and CD Roms that I actually make more than someone who gets their work optioned when I was told only the other day by an optioned guy I wasn't a "real writer" (charming). Now I feel better. In (OPTIONED GUY'S) face!!

Great post as always Danny - tho got another question for you: what's a "fair" price do you think for a commission - producer's concept, you being the writer for hire with little or no artistic license?

Lucy V said...

PS - just thought, if feedback or coverage did qualify the person giving it to a credit and/or moolah, all script readers would be totally famous and rich! >JUST GETTING LAWYER ON THE PHONE....<

He's on holiday. Shit.

Anonymous said...

Hey Danny,

Great post. Please tell me that if you write a feature that goes into production you get more than 15k (total).

Is there a UK equivalent of the US "first day of principal photography" bonus - where a large portion of the writer's fee hinges upon the work actually being shot.



Lucy V said...

Hey Frank, I wouldn't have thought so, since my only feature ever to be commissioned was paid for upfront and has since NOT been shot and I've plenty of contemporaries in the same boat - writing and then scripts disappearing without trace (though options ARE different to commissioned works, so perhaps the US thing would figure). Sometimes they turn up again (apparently mine has been put back til next year), others they don't. However, Danny no doubt knows more on this than me.

Anonymous said...

You will get a principal photography bonus, typically about 2% of the total production budget, but with a floor (minimum amount) and ceiling (max amount), all to be negotiated. But it'll probably be quite a bit more than you got for writing the thing! Then you would have a percentage of net profit (maybe 2.5%), but "net" is defined in ludicrous terms which basically mean unless it is Pirates of the Caribbean you can forget receiving anything. The other great bonus you get of course is a big hike in your fee for the next project, because you are now a produced writer!

Couple of other points just to through in (there's nothing like talking money to get writers going!), personally I would say, even to new writers, don't allow anyone to have a free option on your work. Why should you? And while we're at it, don't let them have it for peanuts either. If they can't afford at least say a grand then they clearly don't like it that much, in which case why would you want to work with them? Seriously though WHO you sell to is really important and if they don't have ANY money then chances are they won't be able to get your script made. That's our experience anyway. Finally, try to get your agent to "front-load" as much of the money in the process as possible, your argument being that the outlining takes much longer than the writing - if you are waiting till first draft for your first decent payment, you could be waiting a long time and it doesn't help the project either, because you'd probably have to juggle other jobs to pay the bills.

Danny Stack said...

Frank, deals and fees vary, and we're talking on the lower scale here for new writers.

If your film goes into production after its development deal, the writer will usually receive a fee that ranges between 1%-5% of the budget (depending on what you've agreed in the contract), made payable on the 1st day of principal photography.

If your script is bought outright, not optioned, then it's unlikely you'll receive any further payments unless agreed otherwise.

Danny Stack said...

Sorry, I cross-commented with Nick. Listen to him... I'm sure James has some wisdom on this matter also...

Anonymous said...

"throw" - jesus, sorry, it's hot down here okay?!

Lucy V said...

Well there you have it: commissions are a world away from options. Damn it!

Danny - re: my previous previous previous comment, any thoughts (that's the Q on what you feel is a fair price for a writer for hire, not whether I should phone my lawyer...Tho I'm thinking that may be an idea after all??)

Danny Stack said...

New writer for hire: between 1-10k.
Produced writer for hire: between 20-30k.

In general. Rough estimates. Expect anything in between and beyond, depending on the savvy (savagery?) of your agent. ;)

James Moran said...

Yup, what Danny and Nick said. I sold my spec script (Severance, in all good cinemas 25th August, bring a friend, etc etc) and got paid for a draft, then got a first day of shooting fee on, er, the first day of shooting.

I also get "monkey points", 4% of the net profits - which may turn out to be 4% of nothing, depending how they do the accounts (Forrest Gump, apparently, still isn't officially in profit yet, so they can avoid paying people) - but the people I dealt with were honest, so it's cool. My agent, realising that monkey points are for monkeys, negotiated me some "kickers", which means I get X amount if the film grosses more than two and a half times the "negative cost", whatever that is (it was explained to me, I didn't understand, but nodded and smiled). That X amount comes out of any profits I may or may not get. Kickers are good, because they guarantee you'll at least get a token amount if the flick makes money. My agent is wicked.

Anonymous said...

I work for a production company (uk)who specialise in low budget films. looking at the contracts, established writers get approx 30k if it is their original idea.

We have recently optioned a 'new' writer - when their contract has been done I'll let you know how much less it is...

Anonymous said...

Thanks to all for the comments. Most enlightening...and sounds far more reasonable now that it has been explained more. As Nick says there is nothing like talking money to create a keyboard frenzy.


jula meadows said...

Unfortunately the most recent minimum terms agreement for film (The PACT Agreement) dates from 1992. It's proved impossible over the years to get an updated version but I believe some new minimum terms are now close at hand.

In the meantime the 1992 Agreement, including 35% increases to (partially) cover inflation, is on the WGGB website.

Of course, not all companies will be signatories to PACT but it's always good to refer to established agreements when you can.

Stephen Gallagher said...

I'd like to see it established that any so-called 'free option' establishes a writer's claim to an executive producer credit, since it essentially involves the writer carrying the financial burden of the option period.

If a third party were to step in and act as 'angel', bankrolling the option year, they'd expect credit and a piece of the end product.

Schmucks with Underwoods said...

If one is agent-less, any idea how much a lawyer would charge to look over an option agreement?

Danny Stack said...

Don't know anything about lawyers but if you have an option, chances are an agent will look over the deal for you if you ask them... they may even take you on for representation.

James Moran said...

Oh, that's a good idea, Mr G - agree to a free option if they guarantee you an exec producer credit. If they get iffy, just say "or you could pay a minimal fee..."

Did anybody else read Frank's comment as "there is nothing like a talking monkey to create a keyboard frenzy", instead of "there is nothing like talking money to create a keyboard frenzy"? I totally did. Has anyone got a talking monkey?

Lucy V said...

I have. Well actually it's a husband, but same diff.

Anonymous said...

p.s meant to add, they have offered an 'open door' for any of my future work but not the one they've already seen as they've passed on it (but said there was lots 'to recommend' in it)