There’s not an easy “right” answer to this question but there are some factors to consider. I think to turn down an option purely because you want to find someone who will “buy it immediately” would be a mistake. It’s very unlikely that a producer, especially an independent producer who is willing to work with a new writer, would be willing to buy a script outright. It would be a huge and unnecessary risk for them.
When I’m trying to decide if I should option a script to a producer there are several factors I consider.
1. How long will the option period be? How much are they willing to pay for the option?
These two questions are directly related. The less a producer is willing to pay me for the option the less time I’m usually willing to give them on the option, although the other factors I’ll discuss below play a significant role in this decision too.
2. What changes do they want to make to the script and how do they intend to address those changes?
This is a huge part of the equation. Producers and directors will always want some changes made to your script. Get used to it. If you don’t want your script re-written you need to become a producer, too, and producer your own material. Most producers will want you to make changes for free. This is a big issue with me, not because I think my scripts are perfect and shouldn’t be changed, but because my time is so precious.
3. If they do actually produce your script, do you think they’ll do a good job?
This may be hard to gauge in the early stages when you’re still getting to know a producer but you should make some evaluation about this as early as possible. In the initial meetings spend most of your time listening to the producer (not talking) and trying to get a feel for whether or not they share your vision for the material. If you feel like they’re going to ruin your script and make a terrible movie you need to factor that into the equation. You may be thinking “why would a screenwriter option a script to a producer when he thought that the producer would ruin it?” As a rule I’m willing to option any of my scripts to anyone assuming the price is right even if I think they’ll ruin it.
4. Do you like them?
This may seem like a strange consideration but keep in mind what’s going to happen after you option the script to them. Best case scenario is that you’re going to be working with them for at least 2 years while they try and raise the money and shoot your script. To raise millions of dollars to shoot a movie takes time, often years. By optioning your script to a producer you’re going into business with them and if you’re lucky you’ll be spending a significant amount of time with them so getting along with them on a personal level is important. The better the relationship you have with the producer the more influence you’ll have as the project progresses.
5. What budget range are they planning for this film?
The budget range is very important as it is the single biggest factor in determining how much you will get paid. As a rule the screenwriters can expect to receive somewhere in the range of 2% to 3% of the production budget (there are some more complexities to it but this is a good guideline). Obviously if the producer is going to try and produce your movie on a budget of $100K that means at most you’ll only be receiving $3,000. I’m not opposed to low budget filmmaking, these films can be fun and rewarding, but you need to be aware of what budget the producer is shooting for to gauge whether or not you should option the script to him.
6. What are the chances that they will actually be able to raise the money for the film?
If you don’t think they have a chance in hell in actually being able to raise the money for your film it begs the question, “why bother?” However, if all the other factors are very favorable I’ll often option a script to someone even though I don’t think they really have the metal to get a movie made.
One thing that is not a factor for me is the idea that my best and only script will be tied up for a significant amount of time. I’ve written dozens of scripts so I always have lots of material ready to be sent out. Tying up one of my scripts for six months or a year is never a consideration for me. It shouldn’t be for you either. You should always have lots of other scripts ready to go so when this one is tied up with an option it doesn’t slow you down and you’ve got plenty of other projects to market. The key is to get several options going at once because most options will not result in an actual sale and production.
The first script that I ever sold, Dish Dogs, was actually the first script I ever optioned. The producers were planning on making the movie for a budget of around $2 million, which is plenty of money to make a quality movie with a few “B” actors. They were willing to pay for the option, $500 for the first six months and $1,000 for three six month periods after that. They were willing to gives us 2.5% of the production budget (a fair amount). The producers had a fairly impressive track record getting movies made in this budget range so I knew that they had a good chance of actually producing the film. They were really cool dudes, too, so spending time with them was always entertaining. The negatives were that they did want some free re-writes and I was pretty sure they would make a pretty mediocre movie. While they had produced quite a few movies in this budget range, the movies were all cheesy “B” movies. One of the movies they had recently finished starred “Stallone.” No, not Sylvester Stallone but his very similar looking brother!
While at the time I certainly hadn’t clearly thought through all of these factors in my mind looking back at it I would still option the script to them today even knowing what I know now, which is that they changed (and in my option ruined) the script. We got paid and we got a decent credit. After years of plugging away as a screenwriter I can honestly say that’s pretty good. And besides, as I mentioned I have lots of other scripts ready to go so I’ve never been one to get overly attached or sentimental about a project. The great Jack London was quoted as saying something like, “I write solely for the money.” That’s why I write, too.
A few years ago I optioned a thriller / horror script to a low budget producer / director. He didn’t want to pay me for the option, he told me he was hoping to raise only $100K so at most I would only make $3,000, and his resume of produced credits indicated that at best this movie would be direct-to-video fair. I optioned it to him because he agreed to a 90 day option and I was able to talk him into postponing all rewrites until he had actually secured financing. I wrote this script as a sort of homage to low-budget horror / thrillers so I never expected it to be a big studio movie and seeing it made and getting another credit would have been fine with me. And since I didn’t have to do any additional work other than signing the option agreement, what did I really have to lose? He never raised the money and I got my script back in 90 days.
I’ve had this sort of thing happen to me quite often over the years. I’ll meet someone who works in the entertainment industry who wants to be a producer and thinks they have enough contacts to get a project off the ground. If I don’t have to do any rewriting and the option period is short I really don’t feel like I’m losing anything by giving them a chance. You never know. I have met some cool filmmakers this way and have built relationships over the years with some of them which have resulted in script options, sales and credits.
I’ve probably optioned more than 20 scripts over the years and only one time have I turned an offer down. In that case I didn’t feel like the producers really would produce my movie (they had a dozen projects optioned), they wanted substantial re-writes, and they didn’t want to pay anything for the option. In addition, I didn’t feel like the re-writes they wanted were very good so I would be making them specifically for them and not really improving my script. But part of my decision was based on the fact that I didn’t have any other scripts to send out at that time. It was early in my career and I only had three quality scripts that I felt were ready to be seen and two of them were already optioned so this one was the only one I was sending out. I didn’t like their offer and so I walked away from it. I doubt they would have ever gotten the film off the ground but if I could have talked them into minimizing the rewrites what would have been the harm in giving them a chance? The fact that I simply didn’t have more material handcuffed me. Don’t let this happen to you. Make sure you have lots of scripts written and ready to send out so that you’re not turning down offers because you think something better might come along. To sell a script is a numbers game and the more people out there hawking your material the better off you are. That means you need to have lots of options going at once. You can only have lots of options going if you have lots of material written.
One very important dynamic that’s present right before you option your script to a producer is that it’s the one time in the filmmaking process where you (the writer) actually have some degree of power. Before the producer has read your script he’s got 100 scripts or more sitting on his desk waiting to be read and you are just another writer begging for his attention. And once you’ve signed the option agreement you essentially sell all your power to the producer. But that brief moment after he’s read your script and before you’ve signed the option agreement you have the power. The producer has read your script (and hundreds of others) and likes yours. He doesn’t want to have to go back and read hundreds more trying to find one he likes. He’s decided he likes your script and now it’s him that’s pursing you. Use this to your advantage. I’m not suggesting you ask for ridiculous things but this is the time to think through the factors outlined above and try and make them as favorable as possible.