Today, I want to discuss the concept of an option, which is relevant when a writer is contacted regarding the film or television rights to a story or novel.
For those of you not in the business, let me give you a simple definition of an option. Writers usually do not sell film or television rights to their work outright, because there's always the chance that the person who buys those rights won't end up being able to make the film or TV show, and then you can't sell the rights again because someone else owns them. This actually happened to Isaac Asimov. Orson Welles expressed interest in his story "Evidence," and Asimov was so thrilled by the thought that Welles was planning to make a movie out of the story that he sold Welles the rights. Welles never did make the film, and when Asimov optioned the rights to the collection I, Robot years later, he couldn't include "Evidence" as part of the deal. (FYI, Asimov's I, Robot never got made; the Will Smith movie is a different animal entirely.)
So when "Hollywood" comes calling, the standard custom is that you don't sell them rights outright, but rather, you sell them the option to try to develop the property as a film within a certain period of time. Options payments are much smaller than the payment for rights, so it also benefits the producers, as they don't have to tie up a lot of their money in your work. And when an option is sold, the agreement signed by both parties includes a payment schedule and explanation of rights that will be sold should the option be "exercised." If the producer is able to sell the film to a studio, then you end up with a payment for the sale of the film rights, and that's the end of that.
(There are other details, of course, such as whether or not you're holding onto literary rights to your work, whether you get a percentage of licensing, etc. But those are mostly irrelevant to this current discussion.)
Now, believe it or not, I do get emails and calls from Hollywood, asking whether the film rights for various stories of mine are available. Fortunately, I have a lawyer to handle those details for me, because some of the time, the people calling want to purchase what we would call a "free option." You can probably guess what that means simply from the name, but just to be explicit, a free option means that the producer wants the right to try to develop your story as a movie for some period of time, but doesn't want to pay for the privilege of doing so.
I can see situations in which a writer might be willing to grant a free option. For example, if the producer who wants to develop the property is a close friend who is just starting out, and if you're a writer who is just starting out as well, it might make sense to grant the free option. Or if the producer can show some emotional investment in the work, you might be willing to let them have a free option because you think they will do right by it should the movie get made.
But I see two issues with that offer. The first one is that if the producer doesn't pay you anything for the option, they have less incentive to try to get the movie made. Giving you money is their investment in the property, and it's only by selling the final film to a studio that they're going to get their money back. So if a producer has a free option, where's the incentive to move forward on the project?
The other issue is that movie rights usually cannot be sold non-exclusively. In other words, I can't sell the film rights for one of my stories to (say) both Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox, as they're competing studios. (Well. I could try, but I would be laughed at.) So during the time that Joe Neoproducer has a free option to my story, its rights are tied up, and should Stephen Spielberg come knocking on my door, I wouldn't be able to sell him the option. I'd have to wait until the option with Joe expires. And I doubt Stephen is going to wait around that long, given that the rights are tied up with Joe.
But overwhelming both of those issues in my mind is again the concept of the value of my work. So if someone comes to me wanting a free option, I have one question rattling around in the back of my brain: if you feel my work has value, then why aren't you willing to pay for it?
My friend Robert J. Sawyer discussed this in his own blog two years ago, in the post Film Options. I like how he describes the concept of a free option:
I've got a lottery ticket; you want me to hand it to you so you can hold onto it until such time as the drawing is held. If it's a loser, well, then you'll give it back to me. And if it's a winner, then you'll make a small payment to me.
Exactly. If you think my story has value, and you think you can develop it and sell it to the movies and make a ton of money doing so, you should be willing to risk some of your own money from the outset. After all, you're asking me to take a risk as well.
Come back tomorrow, and I may have more to say on the value of our work.