Below is an email chain from a reader asking about how to option the rights to a book so that she could turn it into a screenplay. Hopefully you’ll find the chain of emails useful.

It started with this question:

“I found an amazing nonfiction book that seems absolutely perfect for a TV movie adaptation. I contacted the agent on the author’s website, and she told me that film/TV rights are still available. Great! Well . . . I basically have no idea where to go from here.”

First check out this post: Writing a screenplay based on a book, comic, video game, or toy.

Please remember when reading this blog, while I’ve written a few screenplays I’m not an entertainment attorney and when ever you have legal questions you should always check with a qualified entertainment attorney. While this does cost some up front money it can save you a lot of hassle and money down the road.

It sounds like you should try and get an option agreement from the author of the original material. You’ll want to try and get the option agreement to last as long as possible for as little up front money as possible. If you can show the writer (or writer’s agent) how much passion you have for the project they might let you have the film rights for next to no money. The price of the option and the final sale price of the film rights is really going to have a lot to do with how good a negotiator you are, how hot this particular property is, and how realistic/generous the original writer is.

I would say as a rule you’re going to want at least a 2 year option (but longer is better). Keep in mind as soon as this option agreement is signed the clock is ticking and you have exactly that much time to write and sell your screenplay. Once the option expires your script is virtually useless.

If you can find someone interested in your script you might be able to able to the producer to reimburse you for the option money you paid but the main thing a producer would bring is the money to actually buy the film rights, which could be substantial.

You’ll want to spend spend some money on an entertainment lawyer so that you’re sure your option contract is rock solid because if it isn’t your going to be wasting a lot of time and money. So if you have absolutely no money to invest into this project I would say that’s a clear sign that this probably isn’t for you at the moment.

In general I would highly advise beginning writers not try this, even if they do have some money to spend on legal fees. As a beginning writer you want to write scripts which give you the most bang for your buck, and that means no expiration date. So unless you can get the film rights in perpetuity, which I can’t see anyone ever giving you unless they’re a close friend, your script’s shelf life isn’t long enough. When coming up with ideas for new spec scripts you should try and keep them as un-dated as possible so you can send them out forever. The more writing samples you have the better and you don’t want to have to constantly explain that this one writing sample was based on a book that you no longer have the rights to.

I sent the above to the person who asked the question and she responded with this:

Just wanted to update you on the optioning situation!

I contacted the author’s film/TV rights agent and basically laid it all on the line – I told her I was extremely passionate about the project, would love to write the script, but had limited funds, and was hoping they’d consider negotiating. She said that several production companies were interested and that an out-of-pocket option was not likely, but they wouldn’t rule anything out. We kind of did a back-and-forth for awhile about what the figures were (she wouldn’t give me a number) until I asked her if $1000 was within the realm of possibility. She said probably not, as their goal was to get it made (of course).

I’m thrilled that she even humored me, so I’m grateful for the learning experience. Thanks again for your advice—strangely, this experience has made writing my own stuff seem a LOT easier!

I responded back to her with this:

Thank you very much for following up and letting me know what happened. The agents job is to try and get her clients as much money as possible so it sounds like you had a very typical back and forth. I doubt there are other offers but that’s the agents jobs, to try and create urgency and get as much money as possible for their client.

If you didn’t make a firm offer for $1,000 and that really is all you can afford you might want to follow up and make a firm offer so that the ball is in their court. From your response it sounded like your offer might not have been firm but simply a starting point where they might be waiting for you to call back with a bigger offer. So I would consider whether you want to move forward or not, and if you really do (which I don’t think you should) then call them back and make a final, firm offer.

The one other angle you might try would be to contact the author directly. Agents are in the business to make their clients money so the “passion” angle doesn’t work as well on them. It might work on the author, however. In this day and age of Facebook, Twitter, and email you might write a very professional (i.e. NOT stalker crazy fan) message and tell her about your passion for the project and your desire to option the work but that your budget is limited.

And she responded back with this:

You made a really interesting point about stating a firm offer. Since I’m new to all this, I just assumed that giving the $1,000 figure made it a firm offer! But I agree with you, I’m not sure I’m really going to get any further with the agent on my very limited budget (which really is no more than $1000), at least not right now. I might wait a few months, and if the rights are still available, approach the author as you suggested.

Thanks again for all your help!

4 thoughts on “Getting the rights to a book so you can write a screenplay based on it”
  1. Dear Ashley Scott,
    I have to tell you how informative your website is. I have spent most of the day reading all of the postings and I am so grateful that you have taken the time to do all that you’ve done. It’s mighty big of you.
    I know that there is no “road map” of how to do any of this but it’s great to hear from someone who has had success tell you their process. I have 2 very solid screenplays that I want to get out into the world and as you know, I’m sure, if you ask 100 people in L.A. how to do something in the entertainment business you’ll get 100 different answers all the while those people are working the same job that you are, so how valid could it be!
    I don’t have a comment on this particular post as much as the great information in general. I just wanted to say thanks.
    Chris Young

  2. Hello, I read in one of the comments above that it would be advisable to contact the author directly in order to get rights. I thought the publishing house holds the rights for the book? Can you help me?Thanks, Gil

    1. I’m really not an expert on the publishing industry, so maybe you’re right, maybe the publishing house holds certain rights. But I doubt any author would give these rights up.

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