Notes from the Margins: The Dollar Option – Another Viewpoint

By Danny Manus

Last week, screenwriter and fellow ScriptMag columnist Bill Boyle wrote a column about how writers should never ever do the free or “dollar” option. You can find his column here.

Did you read it? Good.

Now forget almost everything he said because, in my opinion, it’s totally wrong.

Imagine this. You work for two years writing and perfecting your project, another year trying to query companies, win contests and pitch it anywhere you can. Then finally – FINALLY – you find a producer who LOVES your project. He wants to develop it with you, he wants to package it, he has a plan for it, he has made movies before, and he wants yours to be next. But you say NO THANK YOU because he’s not willing to pay you $1000.

freeDoes that sound like a GOOD idea… or a bad idea?

Is $1000 really going to change your life so drastically that you are willing to give up a chance to make your project a reality?

Your script has a value, but only as much as the market is willing to pay. And if you’ve spent two years trying to get your script going and NO ONE has been interested – then your script is worth ZERO. It represents a great deal to you, but it’s just words on a page like my grocery list, which no one is willing to pay for either.

Bill wrote about the value YOU place on your work. But that value doesn’t matter – it’s the value OTHERS place on your work. Every writer thinks they’re worth a million dollars. Almost none are. And this self-aggrandizing, self-absorbed, delusional way of thinking could cost you your first credit. Yes, writers take free options because it is validating, but it’s also a possible strong first step to making screenwriting into a career. Saying you’re an optioned screenwriter – especially to a well-known company – still means more than NOT being an optioned screenwriter.

Does your time, energy, blood, sweat and tears have a value? Sure it does. But it’s no greater than the producer’s time and energy, and they aren’t getting paid for developing, packaging and trying to sell your project. And guess what – once they DO sell it – YOU get paid and producers are STILL working for free until it actually gets MADE.

Bill wrote about the IMPRESSION you want to give the industry. Let’s examine that. On one hand, by taking a free option you could be seen as someone who undervalues their own work. Or on the other hand, by refusing to take a free option, you could be seen as a delusional writer who thinks they’re too good or too lazy to work for free and doesn’t appreciate opportunities when presented with them and that you don’t value what the producer brings to your project. Which do YOU think is a worse first impression?

It’s simple supply and demand. Every year over 10,000 new scripts are submitted to Hollywood. Some even say 20,000. There’s too much material out there which is what devalues scripts in today’s market – not producers unwilling to pay. And so the dollar option becomes a rite of passage of sorts. The fact is, if you won’t write for free, the next great idea is right around the corner and maybe that writer will be more collaborative and open to free work.

Perhaps the most ill-informed and downright untrue statement made in Bill’s article is that producers who offer free options are shady amateurs who don’t know what they’re doing. What a load of crap that could not be further from reality. Anyone who says all producers that don’t pay up aren’t REAL producers is clearly someone who thinks they are too good to work with 95% of the producers out there and only writes for money.

And no offense to Bill personally, but maybe if he had been more open to working with producers and working for free, he might have had even more movies produced over the last 30 years.

I have worked for three production companies. One with a first-look deal with Screen Gems, one with a first look deal with Summit, and one with a first-look deal with financier Millennium Films. And we NEVER paid for an option from a new, unrepresented writer unless there was underlying IP (intellectual property) to the project.  Now, there are option RENEWAL fees that we paid once the initial option period ended and we wanted to exercise the option of extending it.  But on the initial option? Nope.  And the movies my companies have made have grossed over $200M domestically.  

Bill said he had never heard of a project that went from a free option to a sale in 30 years. This boggles my mind.  I optioned a project called “To Oz for free and sold it to United Artists and the writer GOT PAID. In fact, he got paid a shit load more than we did, as the project never got made. Our projects Sydney White and Cinderella Story were also free options originally. Both got made, the writers got paid, and now have major TV and film careers! I actually don’t know of any independent producer who HASN’T done a free option.  And if you’re only willing to sell to the major studios… well, good luck with that.

The word “option” is actually used to describe a number of different agreements and arrangements. If you are a professional writer and your agent has brought your project to a producer and they attach themselves before going to the studio – it’s technically a free option. If you do what’s called an “exclusive attachment agreement,” which is what we usually did at Clifford Werber Productions, it’s basically the same thing, except you retain all story rights (including any changes we make or suggest), and we put in a floor and a ceiling for the purchase agreement that will come when we sell it. But there’s still no upfront money for you, and it’s still considered a free option.

Bill’s right about a few things though. You should have a Purchase Agreement of some sort along with the option or attachment paperwork. But of all the options that happen in a year, I’d probably say 10% are for more than $5000. And I dare say that 70% are free. So by refusing the free option, you just killed your chances by another 70%.

Are there some amateur bullshit artists out there who don’t know what they are doing and just hang a shingle, offer a free option and call themselves producers? Absolutely. You have to do your due diligence and make sure the producer is for real and can actually DO something with your project.  Look at their track record and ask them questions about their plans and their contacts. And if a producer gives you NO notes on your script, then you know he’s just stockpiling projects and has no creative instincts at all.  And generally, they should live in L.A. or New York. If some producer in Oklahoma wants to option your project, they better be putting up some SERIOUS money.

Are there producers who stockpile free option projects? Yes, and you should ask a producer how many other projects they are currently developing before signing with them.  But there are just as many trust-fund baby fake producers, or former car salesmen who want to be in the film biz, that are doling out option money like candy and doing the same thing. Do those producers have much more incentive than the producer who has to get your movie MADE to make any money?  Not really. And they usually have less experience.

Bill is correct that once a producer shops your project around town, if it doesn’t get a bite, it will be harder for you to resell it later. But, the reason you’re signing a free option is because you haven’t been able to sell it anyway. Has your script lost its shine once an option ends and nothing has happened with it? Yeah, maybe. But how much shine did your script have before you signed the option?

I agree that  if you are signing a free option (or any option, really), you need to make sure it states that the fruits of the producer’s development labor  – notes, changes, new dialogue they’ve added, etc. – are YOURS to keep. You don’t want to lose all the great changes they might have made and you don’t want chain of title problems later on. This is where having a good entertainment lawyer will come in handy.

And if signing a free option, you should try to negotiate the length of the option to be a little shorter. If 18 months is a normal paid option period, then try to get your option down to 12 months.

Now, at some point of course you need to stop doing dollar options.  It’s not a great long-term career strategy, and you certainly don’t want to “free option” ALL your projects away. But as a new screenwriter (unproduced, unrep’d, etc.) trying to break in, it may be your only strategy for a little while.  And snubbing your nose at the opportunity may cost you much more than an option fee in the long run.

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2 thoughts on “Notes from the Margins: The Dollar Option – Another Viewpoint

  1. Danny ManusDaniel Manus Post author

    Bill, I am sorry I didn’t give you a head’s up, but had been tweeting about it and people suggested I just write a rebuttal article of my own rather than just comment.

    I would be more than happy to have a debate on the issue wherever, whenever you’d like. It certainly is an important issue to discuss, especially for new writers.

    So that being said, on a couple of your comments… Yes, I am approaching this from the business and producer side of things and not that of a writer. But to say I don’t value writers is simply untrue. I value them hugely – but their value in the marketplace isn’t dictated by how hard they worked on a project. What takes one writer a year may take another a week. Who cares how long it took them? I know writers working on 1 script for 10 years – should they get paid 10x as much as the writer who was able to churn out a great draft in a month?

    Their value is dictated by what the market is willing to pay for an unrep’d, unproduced, new writer looking to break in. And currently, that value is usually close to 0. And that’s simply because of supply and demand. It’s not taking advantage of writers, it’s giving them a chance where they had none before.

    Are there people who ARE taking advantage of writers? Sure. And if you follow my tweets, I often enjoy exposing these people and their scams. But saying the dollar option is a scam used by amateur producers is just an incorrect blanket statement and wholly unfair to say.

    I’m not saying the writer never gets paid. As I said, the writer gets paid long before the producer does and the free option should come with a purchase agreement. But what is (or should be) more important for new writers than getting paid $1000 for an option, are the connections and network and TRUST they are building with industry professionals by working with them to develop their project, even for free.

    By working for free with a LEGITIMATE producer, you are getting access and forging relationships and will not only have a cheerleader for your project but also a producer who can now introduce that writer to others or recommend them to others.

    As far as your question of would I, at one of my former production companies, want to work on a project a studio showed severe interest in and said they would make but wouldn’t pay for until it was written, the answer is YES. We did that on The Covenant. Yes, the writer (my boss) got paid, but they didn’t pay us for developing the project until it got a green light. In fact, once a producer sells a project to a studio, they still don’t really get paid until the project begins pre-production. They are still working for free to develop, package, etc.

    There are PLENTY of agents and managers who allow their client to give free options – they just call it something else. When any writer develops a project with a producer on spec, it is basically the same thing as a free option.

    But it doesn’t surprise me that an Agent is the one speaking against free options. Because of course you can’t commission air. And agents like to make money and fill their quotas.

    The last thing I’d like to respond to here is that we, the producer who is not paying, is simply acting as a middle man between writers and the REAL producers, is completely ridiculous. The person bringing the financing, whether it’s a studio or financier or random car salesman on the street isn’t the PRODUCER – they’re the executive producer, the money man, perhaps even the distributor. But WE are the REAL PRODUCERS on the project. We are the ones developing it, selling it, packaging it, physically producing it, etc. They’re just financing it.

    That’s like saying that since much of the financing for projects in Canada comes from the Government, that it’s the Government who are the real producers on the project. It’s just untrue.

    Anyway, I’m happy to discuss the topic in whatever arena you’d like. It’s clear we come from different school and experiences on this one. Happy to talk further.

  2. Bill BoyleBill Boyle

    Well as I am the topic of most of this article I would be amiss in not responding, but I am at a loss as to where to begin.

    I would have appreciated a comment from you rather than having just stumbled onto it but this is already water under the bridge.

    Off the top (and I may be wrong about this) it seems to me that you are approaching this from the other side of the fence and not from the role of a writer. That said, I can see on a more business like rather than professional perspective that you would believe in the legitimacy of not paying a writer for the work that he has already put in to his script.

    Let me ask you a question about your first look deals. If one of these companies said to you that they were interested in pursuing the project that you have the option for but that they really don’t want to pay you anything until they get a total green light how excited would that proposition make you? I suspect you would find that slightly annoying.

    I said that in all my years as a writer and more specifically as an agent I have never seen a zero dollar option come to fruition and you take exception to that. Perhaps its because I was an agent at the time and you did say that your zero option approach was not something you would expect to be accepted by a writer who has representation. I suggest that is because no agent worth his salt would ever let you get away with it.

    In the kind of deals that you describe you are simply inserting yourself or your company between the writer and real producer; the one who is putting money down.

    I have no problem with finders fees for that kind of arrangement but if you have that little value for writers just because you think you can get away with it (we all know how desperate writers can be) then that speaks to something much larger than what we are discussing here.

    It speaks to legitimized exploitation and to a very disturbing disregard for the writer and their craft.

    They have already spent months working for free as they wrote their screenplays.

    You mentioned that perhaps I would have had more screenplays produced over the past 30 years if I had accepted free options from producers. This is a huge assumption about me. As I mentioned I have also been an agent. During my 15 years as an agent I was not allowed to pursue a screenwriting career as it is considered a conflict of interest by SAG, ACTRA (Canadian Union) WGA and WGC.

    Also due to personal family issues I went back up to Canada and during that time served as Screenwriter in Residence for SaskFilm which allowed very little time for my own writing.

    The other assumption you make is that the four films produced was all that was happening with me. During this time I have had under (real) option two television series, and two other screenplays. I have for hired 2 other screenplays that have not as yet been produced but I damn well got paid for them. Every screenplay I have written has either been produced or optioned.

    I would be more than happy to have a debate with you on this subject anywhere and anytime. Perhaps the scriptwriters network or some other organization because I think this is very important issue to be addressed.

    Some how I don’t feel that I have given this all of the attention that it deserves but I’m tired and will call it a night. I might be back for more at a later date.