3 Key Factors in Optioning Story Rights

Translate book to filmDuring the first quarter of every year I review numerous books and consider optioning them to be made into a feature film. It doesn’t matter how many books I go after, the end result is usually the same. There is a 25% chance I will obtain the “right to option” the story, a 5% chance I will actually option it, and a 2% chance I will buy the rights.

There are three key factors I face in optioning story rights. Each one of those factors has to work out perfectly in order to obtain the rights and create the screenplay. To succeed, I’ve found that I have to educate the author, agree on a contract, and change my approach to suit the author.

Educate the Author

The first step in obtaining the rights is to educate the author on the differences between media. Seldom do audiences say that the movie was just like the book. Most people either like the book and hate the movie, or like the movie and hate the book, unless both were just okay.

What makes for a great literary piece is almost the exact opposite of what makes for a great visual piece. The only thing the media has in common is their attempts to sway the audience’s emotions, albeit by different techniques.

In the literary world the author can help the audience get into the minds of the characters. That wouldn’t work as well in film, as the entire movie would be interrupted with numerous narrations, pulling the viewer out of the story, or at least reminding them they are watching a story, rather than having an experience with the character

A good book can take the audience on a journey or exploration that they help create with their imagination. In film, the director uses his imagination to select the specifics of the journey and invites the audience to view what he has already explored.

Most great books fail on the screen, while mediocre ones succeed. This is due to great books having its main plot line filled with heady thought, emotions and character bonding. Film on the other hand, typically moves the emotional components of the story to the B-plotline. In other words, many times a great book requires its B-plotline to be elevated in a movie as an action plotline in order for it to succeed. The opposite is also true; books that don’t connect well with the reader typically are driven by action, which translates very well to the screen.

Agree on a Contract

There are three phases in most agreements. Each phase requires an outlay of cash or percentage of the film. These phases are highly negotiable and require a tremendous amount of diplomacy to achieve, as it involves two artists from two very different media. The three phases include: the right to option; the option; and, the purchasing of the story rights including copyright transfer. The phased agreement typically carries three signature sections for the execution of each part.

The right to option the story gives the purchaser time to develop the story for the screen. It may or may not be a successful attempt based on the huge differences in media. This part is filled with a lot of risk for the writer, director or producer who is attempting to obtain the rights. A treatment is typically written during this phase to help the creative team understand how the film would play out.

The option typically kicks in once the purchaser knows the story will translate. While there is no guarantee that it will, he has found at least a handful of nuggets that will help the process and finds the next phase of development worth his risk. The first draft of the screenplay is written, a synopsis created and a pitch formed in order to shop the story with potential investors, talent and distributors.

The rights are purchased once there is an agreement signed for a big name talent, financing or distribution. While this doesn’t guarantee the story is ever produced, the author, depending on the contract, can take a good amount of her money to the bank.

Since the negotiations are very people and needs focused, everything I shared above might be completely different between agreements. For instance, some producers prefer to jump straight into the option and skip the first phase, while other producers might want to hire a writer during the first phase rather than wait for the second.

The bigger, or less risk adverse, production companies usually buy the rights outright, sometimes just to keep it away from the competition and set it on the shelf for the contract’s duration. Moderate sized production companies buy the option up front so they can move quickly with their existing partners in finance and distribution. Smaller, niche, or boutique production companies include the right to option the story because it drops their risk down to something palatable, knowing that few literary stories translate well to the screen.

One of the reasons comic books do so well on the screen is due to their inception being visual. The translation was created in the mind of the author at the story’s inception and was written with visuals playing the main role in the film.

Change Approach to Suit the Author

I’ve worked with humble writers and prima donnas. Some have been fearful that their perfect story would be slightly altered and others could care less about the major changes made. There are writers who believe their own press and think they are God’s gift to the film world and others who are surprised to be asked for their story rights.

The controller types are the hardest to work with. One of my friends had a book deal that went really well until the author stepped in, according to his contract, and demanded thousands of dollars in changes. The budget was blown and the film never released.

My first book deal had the author unattached and angry. The story suffered because we couldn’t ask him a few key clarifying questions for fear he’d file another lawsuit to change the contract he agreed to. The final film failed miserably in the US, but thankfully was a huge success overseas – We broke even.

There is a fine balance between the author controlling the production to its detriment, due largely to the fact that the she has no clue about the medium, and the author being engaged to support her story. The ideal author is the one who is on standby to answer specific questions without rambling on to other ideas, and is willing to trust the creative film team with what they do best. Unfortunately, they are hard to find.

The hands off authors typically are so distant you can’t ask them clarifying questions without getting them more engaged. However, once engaged, they become a train wreck that requires a lot of handholding. Those that start off engaged or controlling constantly force the creative team to insulate themselves, and if gone unchecked, they might change the story just to flaunt their creative rights.

The worst part isn’t how the author behaves, but rather how the purchaser behaves. I’ve found myself in many situations where I wanted to, but thankfully didn’t, make a bad decision to put an author in his place, or purchase a story that I couldn’t translate, just because of the good or bad relationship being built between the author and me.

I made a big mistake with one children’s title when I kept the author’s favorite scene in the movie. My expertise told me to trash it, but I kept it because of the relationship I had built with the author. As expected, the critics panned the movie with every article referencing that scene which just didn’t fit the film. The only thing that made it worse was listening to the author’s rant for me having kept the scene.

The bottom line is that there are no rules to follow concerning the various types of deals made with authors. However, educating the author, agreeing on a contract and finding the best ways to communicate heart and soul will always be present, regardless of the cutting edge deal being discussed.


Copyright © 2013 by CJ Powers

One thought on “3 Key Factors in Optioning Story Rights

  1. Pingback: Filmmaking Links | Political Film Blog

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