The Fog of the One Dollar Option

A Screenplay The One Dollar OptionThe myth of selling one’s script for a dollar – the one dollar option – and same becoming the next blockbuster, only for the writer to be screwed, is prevalent in Hollywood with folklore abound. Don’t get confused. If you want to be a producer in this industry, my advice would be to educate yourself. Oh, and get competent legal support from an entertainment attorney.

The Screenplay Option

One, of many, contractual mechanisms for a producer to option a work for possible future production into a movie or similar project is a one dollar option. Filmmakers shouldn’t take this method to mean they’re buying a script, for example, for exactly a dollar. And, writers shouldn’t take this method to mean they’re selling their script for a buck. The option generally is for the exclusive right to develop the property under certain conditions.

The stories (i.e. industry folklore) I hear and read, always – 100 percent – had one thing in common. They had no written agreement timely and properly drafted, executed and completed. Case in point? A simple query I received by a screenwriter working with another screenwriter. This screenwriter had spent a year working collaboratively on a screenplay with another writer, in a foreign country. And, now it was time to see if they could get it produced, optioned, sold, etc. etc. etc. The problem? No legal written agreement existed between them.

Could an attorney have helped them? Yes. Could they have cleared all the hurdles needed to have a solid agreement – for a buck? Yes. With that, I’ve always asked myself, “Self? Why do producers, et al. swim into these swamps?” I’ve come to the conclusion they never really wanted to bother doing the right thing. You decide what ‘right’ means to you.

The Write Thing To Do

A one dollar option not only requires a valid written agreement, yet also requires further agreements on what is to happen when the next step comes into play. For example, the option period has expired; what happens next? The producer lines-up financing to produce the script; what happens next? And, some people’s favorite, what happens when one of the parties dies? If you fail to negotiate and secure agreements on these and a vast myriad of other conditions, you really have nothing. You’ve wasted your time working on a project, even if you find a wealthy investor, you won’t be able to legally produce the project.

If you fail to plan for business, business will plan for you.

Waiting until after a relationship has developed, re-writes, writes, re-writes, etc. etc. etc. have been completed, to only then execute agreements will certainly kill your project. You just wasted time out of your life for nothing. Just ask Frank Konigsberg and Ann Rice. It’s all about, “The Mummy.” Frank lost $50,000 on an option with Ann on her book. They never had any written agreements and Frank never exercised his options. (Konigsberg Int’l. v. Rice, 16 F.3d 355 (9th Cir. 1994)). There wasn’t even a ‘one dollar option’ there. Tough lesson to learn.

The Horizon for Indie Production

As indie production is taking a hard hit with regards to financing and distribution in today’s economy, indie producers are looking for ways to limit their cash outlays, while insuring they have solid agreements in place with ventures. As a producer, if you sit down with a writer (let’s surmise a non-WGA writer for this example) to workout a ‘one dollar option’ with an agreement to purchase if certain conditions come into play, and this same writer starts balking at your offer, you have to ask yourself, “Self? Why would I want to spend my business venture life working with them?”

Case in point for me as an indie producer, a British writer contacted me in hopes of me producing their script. After reading the log line, I agreed to read the script with a properly executed release. And, I also told them (before we went further) what I expected. I expected, if I did like the script, I would option it for a dollar with an agreement to purchase at WGA minimum (plus other incentives), once principle photography commenced. Boy. I tell ya. I don’t think the hate eMail stopped for a month.

Having been accused of trying to ‘steal’ this author’s work in the first reply eMail, I just said, “Thanks. I’ll pass.” I had not even read the script.

Indie Producers One Dollar Option

Without a ‘housekeeping arrangement’ with a studio and a fat development-money bank account, how does an indie producer expect to option properties in concerted hopes of producing a movie? A TV show? The ‘one dollar option’ is just one of many methods by which to achieve this goal.

From my professional experience, I’ve had great success in optioning books and screenplays for a dollar – a buck. And, the writers (as am I) are banking on the hopes I can get these into production, distribution and make a profit. Huge, huge hurdles. Yes, I’ve had options lapse. I couldn’t get the project to work. I was out a buck. The writer had a hope of getting their script produced and now they were free to move on. While these projects never came to fruition, though we were disappointed, I have made great relationships with writers. They write. Scripts. Oh, and want me to option them. Relationship-building is lost in the fog. Don’t get lost.

Are there agreements out there where ‘friends’ get together to write a script and want to produce it themselves, and not one piece of paper has been touched by ink to form an agreement? I bet dollars to doughnuts (Krispy Kreme, of course) there are hundreds made every day. I don’t get into those relationships. They’re just not worth the hassle.

As a producer, you have to decided whether or not this one dollar option is a route you want to go down. As a writer, you have to… well, you get my point.

Are there people out there that’ll screw you over at the drop of a dime? Er, dollar? You betcha. However, when all is said and done, you need to have properly executed agreements in place.

One of my favorite quotes comes from John Landis in his deposition during the “Coming To America” Art Buchwald case with Paramount Pictures (Buchwald v. Paramount Pictures Corp., 17 Media L. Rept. 1257 (Cal. Sup.Ct. L.A. County) Dec. 21, 1990). He said, “Every movie I ever made that made over $100 million, there were lawsuits.” I wished I had his problem.

My other, is my own. Question: How do you know your friends in Hollywood? Answer: They stab you in the front, because everyone else is going to stab you in the back baby!

DISCLAIMER: Went to film school and got me a degree. While I did go to law school, I’m not a lawyer. But I did watch a marathon of Boston Legal once.

– Stan

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