I came up in pre-internet publishing. I built my fiction career one painstakingly white-out-corrected typed story and SASE1 at a time. (Thank you, humans of earth, for inventing the word processor and also the internet, although I am not convinced that the ability to publish without reflection is a great gift to aspiring writers.) I submitted to pro markets, and when I was eventually published, was paid pro rates. It took more than a year after the Clarion workshop before my first story was accepted for pro publication, and another year to see it in print.
I worked on Solitaire for more than 8 years, in the hours left over from whatever full-time job I had. One hard day I had to throw away 11,000 words — a year of work — because I had taken a wrong turn in the story and been unwilling for months to admit it; I suppose I thought if I kept writing, the story would magically get better, kind of like dirty clothes “get clean” if you leave them in the hamper long enough. (The lesson of the 11,000 words is one I have never forgotten.) I kept writing. I found an agent. I finished the book. It was rejected by basically every SF publisher in New York until it found a champion in the wonderful Jennifer Brehl, who taught me the lesson that publishers don’t buy books: editors do.
I have a very clear sense of “paying dues” in order to achieve professional status. I don’t believe in magic bullets when it comes to artistic work (or any other kind). I have very little respect or patience for people who believe in skipping the laborious work of learning craft in favor of “I just want to push this button on my first draft and call myself a professional author right now.”
We’ll get back to this idea of dues; but first, let’s talk more about dollars.
Story contracts should ideally be pretty simple and straightforward: x cents per word, or y lump sum for the story, and a very short list of rights being purchased. Novel contracts are more complex in terms of rights and payment structure. And then we come to film options.
For an author, the way the money works in a film option contract is that the producer or other option holder makes an initial payment (the option price) and specifies a possible later payment (the purchase price). The option price gives them the right to develop a film based on the book within a specified time frame. A standard option agreement lasts for a specified period (a year, for example) and also gives the producer the right to extend the option for one or two additional time-limited periods, for additional payment.2
The purchase payment buys the right to actually make the film. Authors get real money for this part, because we are giving up Every Single Molecule of Creative Control over the story adaptation. The filmmaker has no right to alter your published book in any way, but she can pull its guts out through its mouth in the screen version if she wishes, and you are waiving all your right to object to that apart from moaning about it on the internet or to your friends over beer. This is called “waiving your moral rights” to the Property (your book) and goes like this:
“Alteration Rights: The right to change, add to, delete or take from, translate, or otherwise modify the Property in any manner Producer may in its discretion determine in connection with the Picture and other works that will embody all or part of the Property. To the fullest extent allowable under any applicable law, Author hereby irrevocably waives or assigns to Producer its so-called “moral rights” or “droit moral”. Author expressly acknowledges that many parties will contribute to the Picture and other works that will embody all or part of the Property. Accordingly, if under any applicable law the above waiver or assignment by Author of “moral rights” or “droit moral” is not effective, then Author consents to material alterations and agrees to exercise such rights in a manner which recognizes the contribution of and will not have a material adverse effect upon such other parties.”3
The bog-standard formula for purchase price is 2.5% of the film budget (in my contract, “budget” takes 61 words to define, so it’s not the same as the numbers you read in the papers about how much it cost to make a particular film), with a minimum (floor) and maximum (ceiling) price range established. The author gets the floor payment no matter how small the budget shrinks; she is limited to the ceiling payment no matter how the budget expands. So, for example, if the producer thinks your film will be in the $10-20M range, she will identify a floor of $250,000 (2.5% of 10M) and a ceiling of $500,000 (2.5% of $20M). As with publishing advances, everyone is taking their best shot at assigning some kind of value to the property without overpaying (the publisher/producer) or leaving money on the table (the writer). A lot of negotiation happens around these figures, as you might expect.
It’s also worth noting that in a standard contract, the exercise of the option can in practical terms mean the first minute of principal photography. They aren’t allowed to roll film (pixels?) on your movie until they have formally exercised the option; they don’t necessarily have to pay you until then. There have been cases of a film getting through casting and crew staffing, location scouting, pre-production, equipment rental, all the trucks showing up the first day… and Something Bad Happens4 and shooting doesn’t start and everyone goes home and oh well you don’t get a check.
My option contract was pretty standard in all these respects. I was paid for the full three years of the option life (1 year plus two extensions) while the script was being shopped. After that, everything about my relationship to this project stopped being standard. We’ll get into all that.
But right now, let’s talk about screenwriting dollars and dues.
To be considered professional by the industry, a screenwriter pretty much has to be a member of the Writer’s Guild of America West, WGAW. Generally, a screenwriter’s agent negotiates an upfront fee (the writer’s “quote”) to write a script on assignment. These scripts are works for hire, and become the property of the producer or studio. The writer gets paid whether a movie ever gets made or not. The WGAW has a scale of minimum payments for various steps in the writing process (e.g. a treatment, a draft, a revision, a polish): the writer’s quote can be way more than these minimums, if she has a track record. She can also be fired from the project and replaced by another writer. This happens all the time in pro screenwriting.
If a writer has written a “spec script” (not on assignment), then an interested producer or studio will take an option on the script, much the same as the option on a book: one sum for the right to try to develop a deal, and another if the movie deal comes together and the producer buys the script.
Just like any other writer, emerging screenwriters learn their craft by writing multiple spec scripts to learn the medium and to find their voice. By paying their dues. By acquiring knowledge of craft and technique; creating work; getting expert feedback; getting over the fact that other humans don’t think your writing is perfect and godlike; and then revising the work to apply the lessons and make it better. Repeat for years.
The key for me is expert feedback. Workshops, classes, experienced beta readers, and independent professional editors or writing coaches can all help accelerate your learning. There is absolutely nothing wrong with critique groups, but they are only useful if most writers there are A) better than you, and B) capable of cogent, specific and honest feedback, respectfully delivered. And even when emerging writers are great at providing feedback (as many are), they can’t necessarily tell you how to make it better.
So: when I talked my way into the chance to rewrite the Solitaire script, not quite a year into the option, I knew I had just bought myself the chance to enter immediately into an environment of professional feedback in the form of notes from my producer Tommaso, and anyone he chose to show the script to. I am one of the luckiest emerging screenwriters I know, because of this opportunity. I came into it knowing that I was an amateur with no proven screenwriting ability, and that I couldn’t expect anyone to pay me pro rates to take a swing in the pro league.
So I signed a writing contract for a deferred fee, and I took a dollar up front to rewrite the script. I had a six-week deadline to do my best, with the knowledge that if I didn’t deliver on an appropriate level, Tommaso would say “thank you very much” and find someone else to work with. Cherry Road Films didn’t owe me an educational experience: it was my risk to take, and it was a gift. I am so grateful.
I’ll talk about the rewrite experience more in another post. But today I want you to meet my dollar! Instead of cutting a check, I asked Tommaso to pull a dollar out of his wallet, sign it, and send it to me. I think he thought I was wacky, but he did it. Here it is:
I will never spend this dollar. It was my admission letter to the Great School of Professional Screenplay Feedback, and from there to the Great Game of Filmmaking.
1 A Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope in which the editor would mail back your rejection…whenever. There is something unreplicable about being rejected 8 months later in an envelope addressed in your own handwriting. Good times!
2 Don’t ever sign a publication or film option contract without a “drop dead” date — some version of “If you don’t take Action X within Time Period Y, all my rights revert to me and I get to keep the money.” Otherwise you are giving someone permission to tie up your publication or film rights forever if they want to. Anyone who asks you to do this is Not Playing Nicely.
3 To be clear, you actually give up your moral rights as soon as you sign the option agreement. But it doesn’t become as significant unless, and until, a film is actually made. That’s when they have to be sure that they own these rights free and clear.
4 “Creative differences” is a useful and versatile term sometimes employed in these situations.
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.