From Option to Premiere: A Writer’s Journey #1

In May 2012, I optioned a screenplay to a production company in the United Kingdom.  Sadly, I’ve been in the screenwriting game long enough to know that optioning a screenplay is a lot like promising someone, “the check’s in the mail.”  Options tend to be black holes out of which nothing emerges; independent producers take options from writers all the time and they almost NEVER go anywhere except into the black hole.  This is why a writer should never do an option for free or sign the infamous “dollar option agreement.”  You need to at least get something for your efforts, as the writer, so get some money up front, because it’s likely the only money you will ever see from the producer, as he/she will almost certainly fail in producing your script.  Okay, that’s the cynic in me, that’s the experienced screenwriter in me, that’s the “do as I say, not as I do” part of me talking—because (he said cringing), I didn’t take my own advice.

I signed the bloody option.  Why?  Lots of reasons, which I’ll talk about in the next installment, but the central point being I saw more of a upside, than a downside.  As it turns out, this choice to allow my heart to rule over my cynical head may prove to have been one of those great, gut-knowing moments where my Hollywood demons did not “shout down the better angels of my nature.”  Something inside me just said, “What the f@#k—trust this.”

The weeks following my signature have been nothing short of validation that my choice was right, and true and good.  The project is moving quickly toward a green light and toward a state of real pre-production.  No script sale yet, but the goat entrails look promising and the tealeaves appear enthusiastic.

And so, to the point: why should you care and why waste any time, whatsoever, listening to me—I’m just one more screenwriter who’s thrown his script into a black hole? You should care because, if you read this series of posts, you will see what happens to a writer from option to premiere.  I’m going to write about all the things that happen during my personal experience, following each of the phases of the business and creative processes (at least those phases where the screenwriter is included).

I’m hoping this series goes all the way to premiere, but this could all be over in a month—investors could pull out, producers could drop the project, the tealeaves could adopt an ill-favored look—in short, there are lots of land mines between where we are with this incipient movie and were we need to go.  But, aren’t you a tad bit curious what might happen on this journey?  What if this were you?  What could you expect?  How should you be thinking? What are the potholes and pitfalls of getting optioned, then attached, and God forbid survive long enough to get through post production!  Does all this mean you have a career at last?  Or does this just prove that black holes are not so one-way as feared?

Questions, questions—I wish I had answers for you.  I wish I had answers for me.  Like you, I’ll just have to wait.  I can tell you this:  If you follow these posts (hopefully for the next year or more), then you will get some answers.  You will get an education.  And you will be privy to the inside of one writer’s journey from the first signed agreement to the red carpet at opening night (assuming that’s in the budget).

And so, I invite you to come along, however short, however long the adventure, and be the fly on my wall.  I promise not to swat you, but I can’t promise you’ll get out with all your legs and wings.   But, the risk will be worth it.

So, why follow along?  Because, this might be, could be, will be you someday.  Welcome to your future.

(Note: The project title is Billy Miske, based on the true story of an American boxer in the 1920s who literately sacrificed his life to fight one last boxing match to save his family from ruin.  U.K.-based M4West Pictures, Ltd. is the production company lead by U.K. producer Rebecca Tranter, with Stephen David Books producing in the U.S.)

10 thoughts on “From Option to Premiere: A Writer’s Journey #1

  1. Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons

    L.A. Eide: This is ironic, because I am telling all my clients that they need to be writing novels and not screenplays (I’ll be posting about this in my other column “Story Talk”). The action these days is in e-books and self-publishing. Yes, novels take longer (generally) and they are harder to write in that prose is a completely different sensibility for screenwriters (some can do it, others struggle), but I maintain if you want satisfaction as a writer—and if you want to get actual readers and make some money—e-books is the place to be. There is no market for screenplays (see my blog post on this: http://bit.ly/MJBV9R). But, like you said, it is a fun ride. 🙂

  2. L.A. Eide

    I liked installment #1 of your story. You’ve got a strong, readable writing style and the topic is certainly of inherent interest to aspiring professional screenwriters like me. I changed my focus from writing novels to scripts about ten years ago. I foolishly thought since scripts are so much shorter than novels that it’d be less work. Yeah, on the front end, there are much fewer pages to produce but the competition is so fierce that you have to rewrite and polish and fine-tune your script so much and work so hard promoting and marketing it that being a screenwriter is definitely no easier or less work than being a novelist.
    But I’m enjoying the ride and if I keep at it and continue to be open to learning the business and craft from others, I anticipate selling at least one script in my lifetime.

  3. Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons

    Kevin: Yes, the more they pay the better, I agree. The reality is that 99.999% of writers who option scripts don’t do so with “real” companies or stars with money. They are working on spec for cash-strapped producers who don’t have a pot to piss in, and most have never made a movie. We’re not talking about bidding wars here, we’re just talking spec-script hell. There are always exceptions, but 99.999% of writers won’t be that exception. Cynical, but true.

  4. Kevin Michael Reily

    Why a paltry sum? Angelina Jolie paid $80,000 and renewed it?
    The more they PAY the more they respect you. Universal rule.
    What if some other company in Hollywood liked it-and wanted to do it?
    They can’t.

    You’re choice, your script. Just my two cents.

    Good Luck, Kevin Michael Reily

  5. Eilis Mernagh

    Hi Jeff,

    Am there at the moment myself – I signed an option for a paltry amount of money because it means a feature credit if it gets made.

    And I really hope it does!

    Look forward to reading about your journey and the best of luck with it!

    Eilis

  6. Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons

    Patsy: Congrats on having been there 🙂 I have to hold off on the details until all the legalities are signed. Then I’ll fill in the holes, including how it got to the UK and the US history. It’s kind of interesting. So, stay tuned. I’ll check out ur site 🙂 J

  7. Patsy Hilbert

    Hey Jeff – I’m with you. And been there (without the – hopefully – happy ending). I wish you the best.

    Look forward to your posts. Did I miss something, or have you not yet mentioned what your screenplay is about? Also, a curious mind wants to know – how did it come about you connected with a UK company?

    … Check out my new website when you have a sec.

    All the best,
    Patsy

  8. Sidney Stephens

    I’m in!!! I am 3 months shy of graduating with my Master’s in Creative Writing which concentrates mostly on script writing. I’m finishing up my first script and beginning to get into the “now what” phase of things. Following you through your journey will be very eye-opening, I’m sure, and will give me some behind-the-scenes insight to the whole process. Good luck to you. And, hey, no pressure! 🙂

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