The OtherLife Journals (OLJ) are a series of chronologically-random posts about writing, selling, and making the film OTHERLIFE. One woman’s view of the wild ride of indie filmmaking.
When someone in the film business wants to adapt a novel, they start by asking the writer or her agent if the film rights are available. The writer or agent respond, “Why yes, they are.” And generally the next thing that happens is… nothing. So when my agent let me know that Cherry Road Films in LA was expressing interest in Solitaire, I indulged in 20 seconds of what-if and then went back to work.
- Imagine my surprise to receive an offer. Imagine my consternation when my agent, and the literary film agents in Hollywood that she had connected with, advised me to reject it for a number of reasons:
- Too little money for the initial option term
- Too short of an option term
- Too long of an extension term for too little renewal money
- Too little money for the purchase of film rights.
A film rights contract addresses two primary transactions: a development option, and a rights purchase agreement. They are linked. The option gives the producer the time-limited exclusive right to create a screenplay and develop it into a film deal (by attaching a director, key actors, money, a studio or distributor commitment, the list goes on). If the producer is able to secure a commitment to make the film, then they exercise their option to purchase the film rights: the rights purchase language spells out all those details.
Money, time, and creative control are the basic components of these agreements. Here begins the “not for the faint of heart” portion of our journey….
The number of authors who sign publishing or film rights contracts they don’t understand makes me crazy. It’s not enough to assume that your agent knows what she’s doing and will automatically get the best deal for you. You may trust that she has your best interests at heart, but she’s not the one who has to live with the terms. You do. And you’d be amazed at the number of agents who don’t really dig into the fine print details: they, like writers, assume some things cannot be negotiated. Oh, that’s the publisher’s boilerplate, or That’s standard film industry language. They won’t change that.
And maybe they won’t. But that doesn’t mean you should sign a contract without understanding that when it says blah blah blah legal language YAWN blah blah, sometimes what it really means is, for example, Not only do we own the right to publish this book, but we also have the right to publish any future books you write unless you can get someone to make a higher financial offer. This is what I call a company-store clause, and is a true example from a not-so-small press contract that an editing client almost signed within the last several years.
So, back to the offer to option Solitaire, me wringing my hands over my keyboard and whimpering But…Hollywood! Movie! Want! But I listened to my agents and I thought hard. That’s when I started realizing that it was up to me to decide what tradeoffs I am willing to make in my career, and what my personal balance is between business and art. Stephen King and J.K. Rowling no longer have to compromise (I’m guessing). The rest of us have choices to make.
Ultimately, I decided that the parameters of the offer didn’t work for me. I was ceding too much control for not enough compensation. So I told my agents to say no.
At about 5:15 PM the afternoon of the offer expiration date, my (unlisted) home phone rang, and the man on the other end introduced himself as Tommaso Fiacchino from Cherry Road Films. My eyebrows went up and I put on my best grownup professional voice, although inside-Kelley was squeaking Hollywood calling! Movie producer! Mrrph!
Tommaso said, “So, we don’t have a deal?”
However, because inside-Kelley was still squeaking, phone-Kelley didn’t really hear the question mark at the end. Phone-Kelley heard a guy dropping the hammer on the wee writer from the sticks. You missed the deadline and now we don’t have a deal. I honestly thought he was calling to personally inform me that this was the End Of The Line. (I was perhaps feeling a little freaked out :).
So I said, “Okay.” As in, okay, we don’t have a deal.
And he said, “…. Wait. No, we don’t have deal?” This time I heard the question mark.
“Has no one gotten back to you about this?” I said. And when it became clear that my LA agents hadn’t bothered to give him the courtesy of a formal no, I did it myself.
Being Tommaso (*waves at Tommaso fondly through the internet*), he
argued with me earnestly attempted to persuade me to change my mind. He told me how much he loved the book. I agreed that I loved it too. He told me that it was unlikely that anyone else would offer for it, because it was three years after publication and the world had moved on. I agreed with him. And my answer was that I appreciated his interest, but his offer didn’t represent the value of the property.
“I’m very disappointed,” he said.
I said, “I am too.”
We wished each other well, and I put down the phone and walked upstairs to Nicola. I must have looked like a bunny in the headlights. “I just said no to Hollywood,” I said.
I had already decided not to take the offer, but there was something about saying no on the phone to Tommaso that made it so… real. And I was disappointed as hell. But I felt right about it. And I still do.
Nine months later, the phone rang. It was my agent. “Guess who’s back?” she said. Three months later I signed a standard option agreement with Cherry Road that did, in fact, represent the value of the property pretty well.
Sometimes the greatest power a creator has is the power of no. This was the first time I exercised it with OtherLife. But not the last. Stay tuned for more on that, and all the ways in which the OtherLife journey becomes very non-standard down the road….
Enjoy your day.