Film Rights and Optioning

A look at what the process looks like when movie studios option or purchase the film rights to your book.

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Selling the film rights to your books is something that many writers will think about. It may not be the ultimate goal, but it is definitely something that could be a nice end to the book’s journey. It’s largely misunderstood, however, and not as simple as you may think.

Firstly, very few books are actually bought straight away to turn into a film. Instead, they are optioned. What this means is that the studio, agent, producer, or whomever pays you has the option to make a film out of it if they want to. This doesn’t mean that anybody will make a film out of it, it just means that they are the only person who has the right to do so until their option runs out. One of the more common practices in the industry is to option a new book either before it’s published or very soon after. Generally speaking, this means that they can buy it very cheaply. A lot of studios and production companies will be buying hundreds, if not thousands, of options every year, so they want to keep the price as low as possible, as only one or two of those will actually be turned into films. And, as it’s so new, the writer and their agents don’t have much room to negotiate for more money; they don’t know how well it’s going to sell, after all.

Once the company has the option, they’ll decide if they want to make a film. If you’re one of the lucky ones, they will then purchase the rights to make it. They will pay you again at this stage; the price will vary depending on the film’s budget or the success of the book.

The majority of this work is done through agents. If you’re with a big agency, you won’t necessarily have to worry about getting a second agent for the film rights deal; they’ll have people on hand who will work with you and your literary agent. Smaller organisations or more independent agents may not have the capacity to do that, so you would want to approach a specialised agent who will work with you.

At no point should you do any of this on your own. For starters, selling the options and rights for film is much like selling to publishers; the bigger places won’t deal with the writer directly. Secondly, contracts are complicated at the best of times. But when dealing with a contract when you’re selling the rights of your work to a studio, you need to make sure that you’re not giving away something you don’t want to. You could, inadvertently, give them the rights to your characters as well as the story. This would allow the studio to make films based on your books for the rest of time without paying you a penny. In a particularly unfair contract, selling something like the character rights could stop you from ever writing a book about those characters without the studio’s permission, and have to then pay for.

Very few contracts are going to be as predatory as that, but when dealing with something as big as a movie studio, get a qualified representative to broker the deal; make sure you get a specialist who knows what they’re doing. A lot of them will work for a percentage of the deal that’s on the table.

The majority of book publishing deals keep the film rights with the author—if they don’t you need to ask some questions of your agent or publisher—so it’s a process that you will be involved with quite heavily and, for the most part, you’ll have the final say and some room for negotiation. Some authors fight to retain a level of creative control over the movie or take less up-front money for a percentage of the profits. This level of negotiation will vary quite a bit on how successful your book has been when the contract is drawn up. The more successful you are, the more you can ask from the studio.

You need to be realistic about what you want and ask for. A debut novel that’s sold quite well doesn’t mean that you can demand tens of millions, creative control, and a percentage of the profit. Talk to your agent about what you want, and they’ll tell you what you’re realistically able to get. Again, this is largely down to you and what you’re willing to agree to. If you want creative control so that they don’t change large parts of the story, you can ask for that. But the other side is very well within their rights to refuse. It’s a personal choice at the end of the day.

Overall, selling the film rights or getting your book optioned is a fantastic achievement and something that should be celebrated. It isn’t always as glamorous or profitable as is popularly believed, so make sure you keep your expectations realistic if someone does approach you. It’s also not something that you should consider when you’re writing your book. Films and books are two very different mediums and you shouldn’t write your book in such a way that it makes a good film, as you’ll end up with a less than great book.

David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

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