Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

No Free Options

STATUS: I “ignored” email for two days so I could catch up on some royalty statement reviews and contract issues. If the email wasn’t imperative, I waited until the end of the day to start responding. Unfortunately, it’s easy to get behind in a big hurry.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? PRIVATE DANCER by Tina Turner

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, right? I wish Hollywood would understand that there should be no such thing as a free option.

Now in talking to my film co-agents, I do know that Hollywood has also gotten hit hard by the downturn in the economy. That finding money is tougher now than it has been in years. I get that.

But I’m also sensing an interesting trend as of late. I am actually getting more inquiries about the film rights availability for a lot of my client’s projects than I have in years past.

I can’t be the only agent who has gotten a slew of interest lately only to discover when push comes to shove (as in do you have money to option said project), the interested parties say they were hoping for a free option—that they would like to “test the waters” or “shop it around” or “try to get it set up somewhere.”

And then on top of a free option they want an exclusive to boot!

Uh-huh. And I’d like to win the Powerball lotto or inherit the Hope diamond too.


27 Responses

  1. Liana Brooks said:

    Of course you can use my story for free! If you write it yourself, and edit it… here, I’ll give you the basic plot in 10 words or less and you can shop it from there. ‘k?

    Just pat them on the head and throw them back.

  2. David Kearns said:

    I am not a huge fan of rejection nor agent snark. I read your site because I want to know what is going on. I am not a writer you read, you have rejected my work time and again. That said, thank you, thank you for this post. Someone had the guts to say this. I was approached by a film company who wanted to pay me (wait for it)$2K for 18 month option for my book about my father’s plane crash. Exclusive. Wow. The turnkey for everyone was me, frankly, dropping my drawers for a measely two grand. This was a massive Hollywood agency that suggested this. Apparently it is not a good deal to some, until the writer is on his knees with only his skin remaining, and, as they say in Central America, even that scratched.

  3. Anonymous said:

    No way, Jose! Not for free.

    However, I couldn’t help think of the agent hunt. There are loads of times an agent asks for the full AND an exclusive. When it can take months and months to hear back, and I have to put my work on hold because of that exclusive, I get discouraged and irritated.

    So, agents — stop asking for exclusives! Let us shop around! Or are you afraid we may choose someone else?

    No free lunches for ANYBODY!

  4. DebraLSchubert said:

    BTW: Guess what I did while lounging at the beach in Ocean City, NJ today? I finished reading Kristina Riggle’s real life & liars. Loved it. Thanks for bringing it to the masses.;-)

  5. Marie Lu said:

    I know exactly what you mean–the company I work for has several big studio clients in Hollywood and some of their demands are just astronomical, especially given the times. Free layouts before they even pitch their plan to the studio dept’s exec? Heck no!

  6. Joseph L. Selby said:

    Hollywood hit hard? Hollywood is having another record-breaking year at the box office despite the slew of crap movies they’ve put out this summer. With people hard up for cash, they’re more likely not less to go see a movie rather than a more expensive activity.

  7. Anonymous said:

    David Kearns,

    I’m a screenwriter – 2k for an 18th month option is about standard. A book with a lot of heat or rival companies interested may get more, but in the most part 2-5k is average.

    The big money (usually low 6 figures, not 7) happens IF the movie gets made. Until then, they pay the owner of the underlying rights an ‘option’ to make the movie within a time period.

    Hollywood does screw writers. But, this was not a case of that.

  8. Anonymous said:

    There is such a surplus of material and writers, production companies don’t need to pay for options anymore. If a writer doesn’t want to give them an exclusive, free option, then they’ll just move on. Like with the hefty, unwarranted advances novelists used to receive, lots of projects (novels, graphic novels, screenplays, etc.) were getting purchased for thousands of dollars. But in the end there was no real backing for many of these projects. So now companies who rely on studios or other independant fianancing have to perfect the script and shop it around before they will spend money on it. Last year I did four rewrites on a project based on a company’s notes. And they really seemed like they wanted to take it out. Never received a dime. Until some of the overwhelming population of writers recoils, and there is a little more breathing room, it’s only going to get worse for writers.

  9. Anonymous said:

    Anon 7:00 — I don’t doubt for a minute what you say with people moving on if they don’t get an option, but that’s not because there is a surplus of material, that is because they are greedy and desperate to get something going and HAVE to move on, hustle, if they are going to get rights for something that has potential to make it to the big screen. Way off topic, but if a company is asking you to do free rewrites (assuming they haven’t paid you for a pitch or first draft?) then that is illegal by guild standards, though I’m sure you know this already.

    Undoubtedly, I don’t think the overwhelming population of writers WILL recoil. More people are writing these days, and I don’t foresee any let up in that. Though, really, publishers rarely if ever throw “hefty, unwarranted advances” at novelists. Not now, not in the past. A publisher only offers big advances to books they plan on making a lead title and pushing in the market. They aren’t tossing money at something they don’t plan on making large return on. Publishers are notorioulsy cheap, it only seems like they throw money at other books, because those books aren’t yours (or mine).

  10. Anonymous said:

    How much difference is there really, though, between a “free option” and a run-of-the-mill book option of a thousand dollars, because that is the ballpark we’re talking about. A thousand dollars. Or maybe two, according to Anon 5:51.

    So few projects ever go on to become movies anyway, I think, in a way, you are offended over nothing, since all you have to do is say no.

    Ahem… not throwing stones, or anything, but agents do this often. Asking for exclusives, acting put out when you say no. Not getting back to you on partials for four months. Giving form letter rejections on fulls, etc… In other words, expecting something for nothing (nothing = no feedback or timeliness). You’ve got to be more like a writer and learn not to take these things personally.

  11. Anonymous said:

    Anon 7:43 AM said “You’ve got to be more like a writer and learn not to take these things personally.”

    I’m a published writer and believe me, I take it personally when people want my work for free. $2K is lot different from free when you’re trying to make a living from your work (and I have a day job). That’s 1-2 months’ rent. I don’t understand why some writers would never expect doctors, lawyers, and carpenters to give their work away, but we can? Just as teachers feel disrespected for making as little as they do, I feel disrespected by being asked to tie up my work for 18 months for free.

    Giving work for free doesn’t equate to not getting a response on what is basically unsolicted mail. And I say this from having been on both sides of the fence — waiting three years and as many manuscripts to get an agent, and finally getting a check for my work.

  12. Haste yee back ;-) said:

    Yep, wonder if Anon who did four free rewrites was scribin’ for a guild signatory…

    What the hell, it would slide by the guild anyway — like my ole Momma said “wish in one hand, spit in t’other, see which fills up first!”

    Haste yee back 😉

  13. Anonymous said:

    Well, hell, people…

    Anon 8:46 — Heads up, I was poking fun at Kristen, not you. Kristen, more than likely, doesn’t need the thousand dollars, I wasn’t saying you don’t, nor was I saying you should work for free. Essentially, if you have a published book you have been paid for it, so for an option you aren’t working for free, since no further “work” on your part is required (the option would be a subsidary payment).

    If you read further on down in my post, I was trying to make the point (apparently, I failed) that when something like this happens to an agent they get their feathers ruffled, but writers deal with crap like this all the time and are told to suck it up.

    Dude, I’m on YOUR side. Trust me, not only have I been there, I AM there. 🙂

  14. Anonymous said:

    Okay, Anon 9:10 – I hear you.

    But I still want to get paid every chance I get, whether it be an advance, film option, or foreign rights. Those chances come so rarely.

    BTW, to all those trying to get published, I’m not trying to be a downer. It’s the best job on the planet. But it’s still a job, so get paid for it.

    Anon 8:46

  15. Anonymous said:

    Setting aside the fact that the author isn’t getting anything, I don’t see why the studio’s lawyers would possibly think this is a good idea. That’s because I don’t understand how a free option on intellectual property (not an option on sale of goods that could fall under ucc 2-205) can be a binding contract.

    This is basic contracts law: It’s not a contract without consideration. That is, if one party isn’t putting anything into the bargain, it’s not a bargain. It’s just an unenforceable promise.

  16. Tara said:

    Interesting post. I like Haste Yee Back’s expression–heard it often as a kid. And I think that some newbies (myself included) might mistakenly think that free option is at least interest and therefore a good thing. So thanks for the enlightenment.

  17. Sarah from Hawthorne said:

    Heh. The worst example of this I ever saw was a screenwriting competition where the prize was $500 and the chance to option your work with one of their producing partners. Luckily I read the fine print because buried in the rules was the stipulation that by submitting my work (and paying the exorbitant entry fee), I was giving the company an 18 month first look exclusive – meaning if anyone else was interested I’d have to ask the company’s PERMISSION to take it elsewhere.

    I’ve seen production companies run “contests” that are thinly disguised attempts to extract reading fees, but I’ve never seen anyone else ask me to pay them for an exclusive option.

  18. Anonymous said:

    Sara from Hawthorne, the Disney Fellowship for screenwriting is a lot like that. They give you, I think, fifty thousand dollars, but all the work you do in the fellowship year is esentially theirs if they should want it, so yeah, you have to be careful — and the Disney fellowship is something people sign up for willingly.

  19. Anonymous said:

    anon 10:02, that may be true anywhere but Hollywood. The reason is because the large agencies and studios have major legal departments. So they can write you into a nasty contract even though they aren’t paying you a dime. Bottom line, the protection that Kristin is offering is a good example of why writers need good agents — to protect their interests. Hollywood is filled with producers who will try to get a free option. I agree that the $2,000 option is not the same as a free one, however it is below the norm ($5,000 is the typical insult, rock-bottom offer). Options are usually higher. This is a tax-deductible business expense for these professionals. Let them put their money where their mouth is if they really believe your property is worth their time. I say this to any writer listening — do not give out free options.

  20. David Kearns said:

    I want to thank fellow writers and or agents for all the schooling.
    Where Hell Freezes Over (Dunne 2005) took a big chunk out of my life to write.I retained movie rights to this story of my father’s plane crash in Antarctica. 6 of 9 men including my dad survived. It lends itself to the screen. My balking a 2K came from a feeling much like anyone would have of taking a gorgeous property off the market for 18 months, for the price of transmission repairs. I thought if the buyers were true buyers and not just brokers, they’d do better than that. I factored in some costs I needed to recoup. Agents are always telling us to run it like a business. I think writers have to be willing to blow a deal, otherwise folks don’t take them seriously.Just my way of thinking.

  21. talshannon said:

    Free option, my ass.

    And that whole “economic downturn” affecting movie studios? Studios are always in trouble, and they also always manage to find the money whenever they need it. Same goes for writers or anyone else who decides a property is worth optioning.

    FWIW, everyone in my neighborhood who works for Hollywood is still driving a Hummer, so don’t buy into that “we’re all suffering, give us your work for free” crap. It’s the same old song as always. 😉

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