How To Option The Film Rights For A Book

October 5, 2015

Spotted a great book which hasn’t been made into a film yet, but really needs to be? Are you the filmmaker or producer for the job who can adapt it into a killer screenplay and execute it well?

If so, today we’re going to discuss a little bit about the process of optioning—i.e. acquiring an exclusive agreement for the potential to buy the film rights—and how to get through the process with the right way and with as little fuss as possible.

But first, a very common question regarding film rights themselves:

Do I Need To Obtain Rights if the Film is Not For Profit?

Yes. A thousand times, yes.

Even if you’re making your film solely ‘for the love’—and really, there’s no better reason! – you’ll still be on the wrong side of copyright law regardless of whether or not you make a single dime off your work, or don’t even sell it in the first place. Consider buying a novel, scanning it page by page, and uploading it to a publicly-viewable blog: even if you gain no revenue from doing so, it’s still damaging to the original writer and a poor idea all round.

This all said, you’re extremely unlikely to receive letters from a lawyer if it’s a very low-key film to be seen only by your close circle of friends or peers at filmmaking school, but the risk is still there nonetheless – nine times out of ten, if you politely explain the nature of the project to the rights holder, given that they’re content creators themselves they are likely to freely give you the green light (and peace of mind!)

For anything intended for broadcast from beyond closed doors, here’s how you go about optioning the film rights for a book.

Figuring Out Who Owns the Rights You Want to Option

This is naturally the first step in optioning film rights, and is usually very simple: film and TV rights are nearly always reserved by the author themselves and not the publisher, as is commonly believed (except in very rare cases). As such, a quick call to either the author or their agent will put you on the right path.

Before you reach out to them, however, search the U.S. Copyright Office to verify that the copyright for the book itself is in the system and that the rights you’re looking to obtain haven’t been assigned to someone else already.

If you do happen to find any conflicting entries, that’s sadly the end of the line (short of waiting for the option period to lapse and hoping the holder doesn’t exercise them in the mean time).

But if you’re looking good, it’s time to take things forward!

Approaching the Agent/Author

The first thing you’ll verify here is that A) Yes, you are speaking to the rights holder or an authorized agent on the rights holder’s behalf (never just assume), and that B) The rights you’re after are indeed available.

From that point, it’s up to you to pitch a proposal to them—we’ll get on to price in just a moment, but firstly (and sometimes more importantly) you’ll need to consider how long you’d like the option period to last.

One year is rarely long enough to get your production team and screenplay together and ready to go, so try to organize at least one if not two extension periods of the same length of the original at around the same price as the original…

… and speaking of which:

Setting the Price

The onus will be on you to make them an offer they can’t refuse without breaking the bank.

So, what’s a fair price? Unfortunately, there’s no blanket answer to this.

If you’re after the film rights to J.K Rowling’s next book, you’ll have to have very deep pockets (and great connections) indeed….

But if the book is by a talented yet relatively unknown author, you may be surprised to find that the price tag is $0.

Remember that you’re only paying for the exclusive option to buy the film rights at this point, not buying the rights themselves (that’s another story altogether). As a result of this it may be the case that the author is keen to hitch their cart to your wagon in the hopes that you come through with the cash and hit movie at a later date, though naturally a little bit of money involved is their way of giving you the financial incentive to not let the option period lapse!

Do also bear in mind that the cost of optioning is nearly always deducting from the final rights purchase (though extension payments probably won’t be).

And Once You’ve Got the Option in the Bag…

Congratulations on your new opportunity. It’s now time for the real work to begin.

Do check out the rest of our tutorials and how-to’s over on the main student resources hub if you need any pointers on a particular aspect of the production, but above all, don’t rest on your laurels…

… the clock is ticking, and you’ve got a great movie to make!

[su_note]Learn more about the School of Screenwriting at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.[/su_note]