nice things people have said

“A lively, unusual slasher movie that delivers plenty of gore, and introduces a new set of monsters that could be worth a franchise. Clear and atmospheric writing that flows easily down the page. I enjoyed it. Definitely above average writers.”
– Shriekfest 2009 judges panel


“This story is touching on many levels. You are a talented writer, with a wonderful unique style.”
– 2004 Monterey County Film Commission Script Competition


“Rocket Summer is great, I love it and would love to be in it!” — Julie Brown

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kickass superhero movie adds to the unsuperhero genre

New Kickass superhero movie expands sub-genre of regular-guy superheroes

Dave Lizewski is an unnoticed high school student and comic book fan who one day decides to become a super-hero, even though he has no powers, training or meaningful reason to do so.

Lion’s Gate’s KICKASS is the latest entry to the burgeoning unsuperhero genre that I wrote about a few months back. What’s an ‘unsuperhero’? It’s a guy (or gal – er, woman) who takes on the mantle of superheroic responsibilities, with no actual superheroic powers.

It’s a sub-genre with a history, from early comers like John Ritter’s Hero at Large:

An idealistic but struggling actor finds his life unexpectedly complicated when he stops a robbery while wearing the costume of Captain Avenger, a superhero character of a film he is hired to to promote.

…to Miike’s ZebraMa:

Being a failure as a teacher and a familyman, Shinichi tries to escape everyday live by dressing up as “Zebraman”, the superhero.

…to Special:

A lonely metermaid has a psychotic reaction to his medication and becomes convinced he’s a superhero.

…to Woody Harrelson’s Defendor:

A comedy centered around three characters: an everyday guy who comes to believe he’s a superhero, his psychiatrist, and the teenager he befriends.

…to the recently optioned Grampa Was A Superhero:

Grampa thinks he’s a TV super hero, and drags his grandson on a cross-country road trip to confront his imaginary arch enemy… accidentally thwarting crimes along the way and fast becoming a folk hero.

…I see it as a growing subgenre that allows small films with no connection to an expensive, existing franchise to leverage our popular fascination with superheroes, while keeping the hero accessible and identifiable, championing a kind of reproducible heroism (without, hopefully, advocating vigilantism).

The promise of the Grampa project is its inter-generational angle, which should bring three generations together to learn the meaning of true heroism and honor.

Needless to say, I’m happy to see the continued interest in the idea, because I’m selfish that way, and I really really want you to be able to see Grampa Was A Superhero.

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I’ll be a guest panelist on @scriptchat February 28

W00t! I’ve been invited to guest on a panel of writers for @ScriptChat on Twitter next Sunday, February 28th.

We are thrilled to announce our first panel of guests at scriptchat!  We’ve comprised two different panels of talented indie filmmakers/producers to guest at both our EURO chat and our American chat.  Check them out and join the party!

I will be on the American chat at 5pm PST. Who else is on the panel?

Hue Rhodes: Hue Rhodes is a writer/director.  His feature film SAINT JOHN OF LAS VEGAS stars Steve Buscemi and is in theaters now. http://huerhodes.com

Gary King: In 2009, he made his feature film debut with the ensemble drama NEW YORK LATELY which has been hailed by The Independent Critic as “a remarkable achievement” and Row Three as “a beautiful film” making its Top Ten Films of 2009 List.  It was also listed on Associated Content’s “Best Independent Movies” List — right behind SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. http://www.grking.com/blog

Phil Holbrook: Phil Holbrook has always had a love of film and the filmmaking process. He has written anddirected several short films, all shot in Minnesota. He is currently working on the featurefilm “Tilt”. www.CreativeJinx.com

King Is A Fink: Jessica King and Julie Keck have been making films as King is a Fink for 10 years. Their short films Snow Bunny and Libidoland are currently making the rounds on the film festival circuit.  In addition to making shorts, King and Keck also write feature-length screenplays.  They’re currently writing a dramatic thriller called TILT for Phil Holbrook and adapting a naughty memoir by Kevin Keck (http://www.thekeck.com/). http://kingisafink.com.

C’mon, join in and send me good juju!

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Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief – A lesson in storytelling?

(aka: Percy Jackson: The Story Thief)

Percy Jackson and The Olympians: The Lightning Thief” – a review about mismanaging story

*** NOTE: Spoilers galore. ***

I am not one of those “the movie is never as good as the book” guys. Every read Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the source material for Blade Runner)? You couldn’t help but make a better movie than book, as the book is laughably bad. And Blade Runner is one of my all time favorite films.

And I’m not in love with Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief as a book. It’s engaging enough, and full of big ideas, but somewhat lacking in story structure.

So why am I so struck by the failure of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief the movie?

I think, the more I ruminate on it, it’s because the mistakes seem so rooted in fundamental story issues, and seem to favor the weaknesses of the book over its strengths.

IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE BOOK *** spoilers ***

Percy Jackson is a demi-god — child of Poseiden and a mortal. His mother has kept this a secret — as far as Percy is concerned, his father is just absentee. When Percy’s true lineage is revealed, all the monsters swoop in to kill him (children of the big three Gods — Poseiden, Hades and Zeus — are especially dangerous), and his mother is killed by a Minotaur.

It turns out the big three, who by the way are brothers who killed their dad Kronos thousands of years ago,  are on the verge of a global war, because someone’s stolen Zeus’ master thunder bolt. Percy could care less who stole the bolt, but is convinced his mother may still be alive, held captive by Hades in The Underworld. So he agrees to travel to The Underworld to retrieve the bolt, and must make a cross country trip with his two companions, Annabeth and Grover, to get there (Hades is in Hollywood).

It turns out Hades does have Percy’s mother, but he didn’t take the bolt. He wouldn’t want it, because he’s got enough to do managing The Underworld without millions of new souls coming in as the result of global devastation. Someone has, however, stolen his magic helmet that lets him be invisible… probably the same person who stole the bolt. If Percy can retrieve the helmet, he can have his mother back.

So who has the bolt? Why, it’s been in Percy’s backpack all along. The backpack was a gift from Ares, God of War… it’s looking like maybe he set Percy up from the beginning, with the help of Luke, son of Hermes — a friend of Percy’s and Annabeth’s love interest.

Percy agrees to leave his mother behind, retrieves the helmet from Ares in an epic battle — yup, turns out he wanted to start a War because, well, he’s the God of War — and returns the bolt to Zeus.

But wait, it’s not that simple. See, the real meta-plot is that the father of the big three — Kronos — is gathering his strength, preparing to leave Tartarus (the lower depths of The Underworld) and take out his three sons who slew him and chopped him to pieces and sent him to Tartarus in the first place millennia ago. He’s manipulating other lesser Gods and demi-gods, Ares and Luke among them, into doing terrible things, not the least of which are stealing Zeus’ bolt and trying to kill Percy. All this in an effort to rise from Tartarus and bring an end to the Age of the Gods, likely destroying all of mankind at the same time.

So although Percy’s returned the master bolt and avoided this war, Kronos is just getting started. There are bigger powers at work in this universe than the simple jealousies of three brother Gods and their illegitimate kids.

The weakness of the book is that Percy’s adventures on the road have no kinetic causality… the kids move from one isolated mini-adventure to another, with no real driving plot motivations. They happen to get attacked by harpies on the bus and escape, then stumble across Medusa’s lair and escape, then get attacked in the St. Louis Arch and escape, then into an enchanted Vegas hotel and escape, and so on. The plot points are disconnected, they don’t lead one to another, and the monsters seem to have no individual motivation other than simply wanting Percy dead because it’s their job. After a while it feels redundant and predictable.

The only thing tying them together is that in the end, it’s revealed that Kronos must have been manipulating the trip to make things hard on the kids as part of his master plan… but his motivation for that is questionable. If he wants the master bolt, he’d give Percy a pass… and if he wanted him dead, seems like he could be a little more efficient about it.

Why the big set up? Because…

None of this is in the film.

Well, almost none of it. There are so many changes, so many characters missing or rolled into one another, so many massive, fundamental plot elements utterly ignored, that one almost wonders why it was even called Percy Jackson. It’s almost as if they co-opted the title and the main character, and wrote a whole new story.

Now that’s nothing new, happens with book-to-script all the time, and often with good reason (see my Blade Runner comment above). But here are the core issues I have and why I think they were poor decisions.

Mom

In the book, Percy doesn’t know if his mother is with Hades. He hopes she is, and takes on the quest with no real intention of finding the bolt or ending the war, but for the secret motive of releasing her. This adds complexity to his motivations, as he’s manipulating his friends and the circumstances for selfish reasons, pinned on a hope.

In the film, Percy learns right away that his mother is alive with Hades, and so his whole motivation for taking on the quest is unfortunately simple and utterly without subtext.

Kronos

In the book, Kronos is the meta plot that makes this a “bigger than all of us” story. It’s Kronos that appears unnamed in Percy’s dreams while on the road, and it’s his grand machinations that are finally revealed to be manipulating the Gods and the demi-gods, and indeed humanity, like chess pieces. Kronos is the Matrix, the mystery, the malevolent power that promises to drive the whole series. And it’s Kronos’ manipulations that leave hope that evil Luke, Percy’s ex-friend and Annabeth’s ex-crush, might be redeemed if in fact the evils he’s perpetrated were not truly his choice.

In the movie, Kronos is not a factor. He’s simply never addressed. Doesn’t exist. The only antagonist turns out to be Luke, who stole the bolt to start the war because (to paraphrase) “The Gods are old. They’ve had their chance. It’s time for the young ones to have their turn.”

Really? That’s it? The whole thing hinges on one angry teen with an attitude? What a shame that the one meta-plot that gave the story a “bigger than all of us” quality is simply ignored. And, as a consequence, the series of events on their quest might lack any motivating causality.

Except that conveniently, Percy’s got:

The pearl map

In the book, Percy arrives on the West Coast and receives three magic pearls with which he and his two friends can escape The Underworld.

In the movie, Percy learns about the pearls before his quest, and is given a magic map leading the trio from one hidden pearl to the next across the country. As each pearl is retrieved, the map reveals their next destination. It’s a clumsy and unsatisfying mechanism, but at least it’s an attempt to create some structure for the road trip, some causal connection that moves the story forward that had been lacking in the book.

However, in the book, the pearls set up the major reversal in the plot, and Percy’s ultimate character arc, as the kids must:

Escape from The Underworld

In the book, Hades has no desire to keep the bolt. But he won’t just give up mom. He wants his helmet back, and wants Percy to get it for him. Having only three pearls means Percy can’t just magically escape without leaving someone behind. Both his friends volunteer, but Percy realizes that they have a better chance using their powers as a team to not only save mom, but stop the war and save all of mankind.

Percy has to trust both Hades and himself to secure his mom’s freedom. Hades is a complicated guy, and theirs is a complicated relationship (Hades is Percy’s uncle, after all). So Percy has to leave his mom behind, and trust in he and his friend’s ability to succeed in their quest to save her. That’s a big deal, and demonstrates Percy’s growth and newfound sense of responsibility and selflessness. It’s one of the highlights of the book.

In the movie, Hades wants the bolt all right. And once he’s got it, he plans on killing the kids. Nothing complicated about that. They’d be dead if not for Hades’ wife, Persephone, who enjoys her visit to the surface every year and would be bummed if a war among the Gods interfered with those plans.

As he did in the book, Grover volunteers to stay in The Underworld, but unlike the book, Percy agrees. There is no difficult decision, no reversal forcing Percy to leave his mom behind after working so hard to save her. Grover wants to stay (he’s randy, and Persephone is lonely) so Percy simply leaves with his mom and Annabeth. We lose the opportunity for Percy to choose a difficult reversal, and to demonstrate his growth as a character.

The story, and its protagonist, are robbed of any real arc or growth.

Why do I care?

Okay, so it’s a reasonably good kid’s book, and a pretty bad kid’s movie. What difference does it all make? Why am I writing so much on it?

Because it’s an opportunity to think about story.

I find it interesting that the movie chose to focus its energies on fixing the book’s weak plotting by plugging in the map mechanism, but chose to remove the best parts of the book and replace them with nothing. We end up with a hamfisted plot device to move the story points, a protagonist who has no subtext, and ultimately suffers no reversal and completes no arc.

Imagine if (for instance) we’d kept Kronos, refined his motivation for manipulating Percy along with everyone else, used that motivation to fix the story structure and drive the micro-plot points with causality, and retained Percy’s opportunity to meet his difficult reversal with newfound responsibility and selflessness. Imagine if Hades had remained layered and complex, illustrating that even evil needs to be negotiated with from time to time because we actually share some common goals… because we’re related.

How much more interesting could this film have been? How might it have built on the promise of the book, resulting in something even greater?

But someone, somewhere, looked at the book and thought it was just about monsters and road trips and single-minded one dimensional characters, wrapped in an opportunity to CG a bunch of monsters that have action-figure possibilities.

Who made these decisions? I dunno… I’m not going to point fingers at the writer, or at the director, or at the studio. It’s a collective effort, and sometimes the reasons behind doing things get lost on the way to doing them. And clearly, it’s working just fine for a lot of people.

But someone, somewhere, should think a little harder about story.

Or maybe I’m asking too much.

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11 more things to think about when negotiating your script option

Got an offer to option your script? Here are eleven terms you should know when talking to your attorney.

[See PART I – 10 things to think about when optioning your screenplay]

Okay, so you’ve gotten an option offer, you’ve thought about the 10 things, and you still want to do it. Now it’s time to talk to your attorney, and make some decisions about the negotiation points. Your attorney is going to toss some notes back to you for consideration, and chances are these things are going to be included. (There’ll be lots more than this… from simple typos to wholesale rewrites. But these are the top contenders for “things I think you should know”.)

Ask your attorney to spend some time with you to explain what they mean in the context of your deal… but here’s my take, based on my experience.

DISCLAIMER: I shouldn’t have to say this, but: I Am Not A Lawyer, I am not offering legal advice, and none of the numbers used as examples here should be considered recommendations or as examples of my personal previous contracts (which are none of your beeswax😉 ). They are provided as  hypothetical examples only. Talk to your own attorney about your particular deal.

PART TWO

Equity

This is a freebie. Either that, or this is really a list of 12 more things to think about. But I use the term “Equity Position” or “Equity Participant” frequently, and I want to make sure you know what that means before we really get started.

Equity (as defined by Wikipedia) is “the value of an ownership interest in property, including shareholders’ equity in a business”.

It means you’ve got an ownership stake in the property, and participate in its upside. When the property increases in value, your piece of it increases in value. You’re an investor.

And of course, should it be worth nothing (and many an indie film is worth just that), so then is your stake.

Your share of ownership in the property is generally defined as a percentage, or points, which brings us to:

1 – Percentage, Points and Net

This is a long one, so let’s get it out of the way.

You may be offered a percentage of “Net Profits”. Most people will tell you that this is worthless, and it may very well be (I’ve had a percentage of Net on all my options, and most of the features I’ve worked on in any other capacity, and so far I haven’t seen a dollar) for two reasons:

  • (1) Most films — especially small low-no budget indie films, never get finished. Of those that get finished, most never get distribution. Of those that get any kind of distribution, most genuinely don’t make a profit. So your percentage becomes a percentage of “zero”.
  • (2) Of those films that do make a profit, often some very creative bookkeeping takes place to make sure that “net profit” is never achieved (on paper), so again your percentage becomes a percentage of “zero”. (See below)

Some oversimplified round numbers: “Net” is the amount of profit that is left after “Cost” is recouped by the producer. If it costs 50K to make the film, and the film them “Grosses” 100K (in distribution deals, say) that’s a “Net” of 50K. Let’s say you negotiated 5 percent of Net. You get $2500. Simple, right?

Not so fast. What constitutes a “Cost”? The producer may claim other costs besides pre, production and post. There may be M&A (Marketing and Advertising) costs, film fest entries (maybe including her travel and lodging to attend said fests), and so on. You might even see “Producer’s Fees” (a professional fee the producer has set aside for herself to be paid as a “cost” before arriving at “Net”).

So make sure your attorney gets “Net” defined in your contract. You may not completely love the definition you get, but at least it’s non-negotiable. Should you NOT have it defined, it may became very nebulous indeed if the film catches lightning in a bottle and becomes “Paranormal Activity”.

So you arrive at a definition of “Net”, and you’re getting some piece of “Net”. What piece? Sometimes you’ll hear the term “Points” – as in, “we’ll give you 5 Points in the film”. It’s easy to think this means “Percent” (and it might) but it’s not uncommon for the overall Net profit to be split in two — half for the producer, half to be shared among investors and/or other equity participants (like you). That second half is divided into 100 “Points” (sometimes more). So your “5 Points” may really only be 5 Percent of 50 Percent, or 2.5 Percent, of Net.

Further, those Points may be assigned a dollar value… so as funding is being pursued, investors are sold Points at a fixed cost — say 5,000 per Point. Invest 20K, you get 4 Points. If that’s the case, a dollar value is being placed on your contribution  (if each Point is worth $100 and you’re getting three Points, that’s valuing your contribution at $300). Make sure the Point value matches the agreed value of your deferred pay – or at least, that you’re comfortable with the valuation.

Lastly, consider the order in which equity participants are paid out. Some agreements may have the cash investors paid back first, until they recoup some percentage of their investment (anywhere from <100% to 110% or more) before “Net” is arrived at. In other words, all the “hard costs” of the film get recouped, then as profits come in it all goes to cash investors until said threshold is hit, THEN other equity participants start getting their cut. Perhaps the “point structure” should mandate you get paid as a CASH investor… with the “first paid”.

Bottom line? You’re not likely to affect how “Net” is defined. But getting it defined in your contract, and then defining WHEN you get paid, sets all expectations, and gives you the power to protect your back end participation should the film ever turn a profit.

2 – Audit and Accounting Rights

Pretty much what it sounds like… particularly important when you’re an equity participant. You want to be able to (reasonably) request access to Accounting information for the purpose of an Audit. You may never need to exercise it (I hope you don’t) but should the “Net” seem mysteriously elusive, you’ll want these rights in writing.

3 – Box Office Bonus

A Box Office Bonus is just that… a bonus paid to you for good box office performance. Hey, if the movie does well, it’ll be in part because of your great script, right? So how does that work?

If the box office gross surpasses the budget of the film (and you’ll want to define what constitutes the “budget” too) you may receive a bonus. This can be a tiered structure as the box office reaches ever higher multiples of the budget. For example:

  • $10, 000 when box exceeds 2.5 x budget
  • another $10K when box exceeds 3 x budget
  • another $10K when box exceeds 3.5 x budget
  • a balloon $30K when box exceeds 4 x budget

4 – Set Up Bonus

Another opportunity for a bonus? Yup. You can negotiate a “Set Up” bonus, which pays you a happy little chunk of unexpected change when the project is “Set Up” with either a production or distribution entity.

How much? Think in the neighborhood of 3-5% of your purchase price.

5 – Writing Rights and Fees

Get paid for  more writing? Sign me up! See, what the producer is purchasing is rights to your script in whatever version/state it’s in when they optioned it. Once it’s optioned, you shouldn’t still be working on it, unless you’re getting paid for it.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. You want to be a team player, and if this is a low budget project, money might be tight. You may opt to forego fees for rewrites if it helps move the project toward production… imagine Angelina Jolie said she’d consider being attached, if her part were meatier. Are you gonna screw the pooch by demanding another 5K the producer can’t afford?

I didn’t think so.

But you do want to be the writer writing for Angelina, right?

So get first right of refusal on rewrites, polishes and sequels.

If you want to write for free, consider putting a limit on the number of unpaid revisions. Be generous if you like, but protect yourself.

Then, when it’s time for paid rewrites or polishes, you should still be first in line, and you should have a fee defined in the contract.

How much? Entirely dependent on the  budget and purchase price. Work it out with your attorney (have you heard me say that too much already?).

6 – Passive Payments

Like to get paid for not working? It could happen.

Imagine the option is exercised, and your script is bought. It goes to production, gets distribution, and sees enough success to warrant a sequel. If you’ve negotiated well, they have to give you first right of refusal to write that project.

But what if you don’t write the sequel? Maybe the notoriety of the original project has got you too busy with new assignments… or maybe they’ve done something terrible to your original concept and you don’t want to be associated with the sequel😉. Whatever the reason, if you’ve negotiated a Passive Payments clause into the sale of the original script, you’ll get paid for the sequel even if you pass on writing it.

How much? You might negotiate your contract to stipulate the fee for writing a sequel as negotiable, with a minimum at least equal to the purchase price of the original. Then, you can negotiate a Passive Payment of 30-50% of the fee you got for the original should you choose not to write the sequel. Make sense?

  • Purchase price: $50K
  • Write the sequel: Minimum $50K
  • Passive Payment (for not writing the sequel): $25K

Remember that any or all three of the above might include some back end participation as well.

Consider also negotiating what credits you might get on a sequel, should you choose not to write it.

7 – Ancillary Rights: What rights are you selling?

Bear in mind that the producer is going to ask for ALL rights… that’s what “all right, title, and interest wordwide and in perpetuity in and to the Property [your script]” means. That’s the right to make it, sell it, exploit and market it in any and all media “now known or hereafter devised”.

That’ll probably include “Ancillary Rights”… merchandising, commercial tie-ups, soundtrack. Happy Meals, action figures, posters and jewelry and Hot Topic paraphernalia.

Even the novelization or serialization of the story in a periodical.

Serious, right?

But there may be some rights you can hang on to. Work it out with the producer and your attorney, but I’ve had luck retaining:

  • Publication Rights (publish and distribute printed, audio and electronic versions of the Property in book form and magazines).
  • Stage Rights (perform the Property or an adaptation on the spoken stage provided no broadcast, telecast, recording, photography, etc is made).
  • Radio Rights (broadcast the Property by sound on radio).
  • Author Written Sequel (a literary property using one or more characters, participating in different events, in a plot substantially different).

The specifics of these might get complicated, and maybe they’re not of interest to you.

Consider then also ensuring you get get some equity position in all the subsequent merchandising and other exploitation of your script. That might be covered adequately in your back end percentage of producer’s net, but check in with your attorney.

8 – Reversion Rights

What if the producer exercises her option, buys your screenplay, then never makes it? Sure you got paid, but wouldn’t you like to see the film produced? And now it’s sitting on somebody’s shelf collecting dust, never to see the light of day. What if  you’d like to get it back and maybe find it a home where it’ll finally get shot?

That’s what Reversion Rights are. Some defined number of years after a purchase (3? 5?) the rights to the script can revert back to you.

But wait, you say… the producer paid for the script. Don’t you have to buy it back?

Nope… you can negotiate a “lien” on the script, which means that they’re paid back as a part of the budget that eventually gets raised for a future production, or out of its profits (as an equity participant), should you succeed in placing the script with another producer. Again, let your attorney work out the details. But consider asking for Reversion Rights if you can.

9 – Arbitration Clause

A basic part of any contract, this clause simply states that should the contract require arbitration, you and the producer agree to abide by arbitration rules of a given state. Usually the state in which the production entity is incorporated.

10 – Get yourself added to E&O Insurance

E & O (Errors and Omissions) Insurance is standard practice for all productions (or should be). It protects the production company from liability should they cause financial harm to another party by way of an error or an omission. So, you want to be protected as a member of the production from liability.

Imagine they screw up and use Toyotas in that big crash scene you wrote, without permission from Toyota, thus inferring that Toyota’s brakes and accelerators kill babies. Toyota takes them to the cleaners. You want that mess to roll downhill to your unprotected hiney? I don’t… so having your name added to the production’s E&O is smart protection.

11 – WGA and Credits Protection

I actually talked a lot about this in Part I but thought it bore repeating here. If you’re not WGA, how can you protect yourself from losing credits or rights to WGA writers who might come on board the project later for rewrites, polishes, etc?

Have it stipulated in the contract that, should the project fall under WGA jurisdiction, you should be deemed a “Professional Writer” and a “Participant Writer” as defined under WGA to determine writing and separated rights.

And while we’re talking credits…

  • Story By: You didn’t write the script, but created the source material (article, book, treatment, etc).
  • Written By: You wrote the script, and everything is original to you.
  • Screenplay By: You wrote the script, based on source material not original to you (article, book, treatment, etc).

And of course all of these can be shared among numerous individuals.

In the end…

Seems like a lot of stuff, right? It is. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Your attorney might recommend everything from how many copies of the DVD you get, to guaranteeing invites to any festivals the movie plays at, to negotiating first-class flights to the premiere. It’s up to you what to push for and what to let go, but I’ll leave you with this thought (and I’ve said it before):

Be a partner. Don’t cripple the deal, or the production (especially small productions), with unnecessary fees that might either paint you as a prima donna, or worse, keep good money from hitting the screen. When the time comes that you’re negotiating million dollar development deals, then you can play hardball if you must (I know I will. I love me some First Class).

I personally have tried to focus on a fair price, first rights of refusal for paid rewrites and sequels, and protecting my credits.

I hope you have every opportunity to huddle up with your attorney, and negotiate a fair contract that forges a real partnership with a great producer that turns into many more projects.

Till then, good luck. Check in and let us know about your success stories (or horror stories). And if you’ve got anything to add to the above (corrections welcome) hit me up in the comments section.

Good writing.

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10 things to think about when you option your script

What does it mean to have your script optioned? What should you expect? What should you ask for?

Here’s one guy’s opinion.

Part I of II [Click for Part II]

Now that I’ve been through the option gauntlet a couple of times, I get asked about the experience and the process. It’s a little humbling, cuz I’m just a lucky guy with a couple of options, but I know how much I appreciate when I stumble across some good first-hand info, and figured it would be a good idea to share what I know. So I thought I’d gather my notes together here, in the hopes that it’ll prove useful to others. This is no substitute for having an attorney, mind you… more on that later. But I wish I’d had this list.

Of course, I’m no lawyer, but I did pay one (a really good one, too!) to represent me in my deals. I wanted to learn, so I was involved in the negotiation process, and reviewed each round of revisions on the offers and eventual contracts, asked lots of questions, and took lots of notes. I asked the attorney to mark up the contract with all the items of concern or negotiation he could think of… then I had him go over them with me, and explain things to me that I didn’t understand. I picked out the points I wanted to ask for, and removed items I felt were over-reaching or I just didn’t feel like I needed.

I don’t plan on being so involved in future deals. But now that I’ve got a handle on the basic vocabulary and have some sense of what it is I should be looking for, at least I won’t feel like an outsider in my own negotiations.

Part I is the basics… what is an option, how to respond, and what to expect. Part II is a list of negotiation points and terms that I’m very glad I know about now, and you might like to know about as well.

PART ONE:

1 – What is an option?

Producer Bob stumbled across your script on your site, or at InkTip.com, or in a screenplay competition, and has approached you with an offer to “option” it. What’s that mean, exactly?

Granting a producer an option means granting them the exclusive right to develop the script… to try to raise the money to make it, get talent or a director attached, and otherwise exploit the property with the end goal of making your movie. Any time within the option period they can “exercise” the option, and buy your script for an agreed price.

Sounds great, right?

Depends.

2 – Should you take the option?

Getting optioned is exciting. But it doesn’t mean your film is going to get made… it means someone wants to make your film but doesn’t have the resources yet. If they did have the resources, they’d buy it and make it, right? So what you really want (short of actually selling the screenplay) is to have it optioned by someone who has a high likelihood of getting it made. Because while having a script optioned is great (and it is great, don’t get me wrong) having a script produced is even better. Not just for your ego, but for your career.

Remember too that your scripts are your product, and have value. They’re an investment for you, and like any investment, they should be working for you. I assume that you don’t just write them and stick them in a drawer… you show them to people, put them into contests, post them on screenplay sites (like InkTip.com), right? You want them out there representing you, if not to get sold, to at least be working as writing samples.

But during the time the script’s under option, you’re likely restricted from any further exploitation of your own. That’ll probably include submitting it to any more contests, and certainly means not showing it to any other producers. When your script is under option, it’s “off the market” and is no longer working for you. Now the option has to be working for you, by being more valuable, more likely to lead to production, than having the script “on the market”. So, you want it optioned by someone who’s really got the goods to make things happen.

3 – It’s okay to say no

If you’re approached by an unknown producer with no resources, no previous credits, no financing and no connections, and thus a limited likelihood of getting to production, it’s okay to say no. Your script (assuming it’s a good script, and of course it is, right?) may be more valuable to them than they are to you. Your script may no longer be working for you, either inside or out of the option. (But you don’t have to say no. There may be good reasons to take said chance with Mister unknown resourceless producer… more on that later.)

4 – Get a lawyer

If you’re considering taking the option, let me say this first:

Get a lawyer… not just any lawyer,  but an entertainment attorney. I promise you, they will handle things you never dreamed would need to be handled. They will ask for compensations and protections that you didn’t know existed. And you will be better off for it.

Second, partner with your lawyer. I’ve heard people complain long and hard about how their lawyers screwed up deals for them, lost them money or projects or investors. Your attorney works for you… they’re the pro, don’t get me wrong, and avail yourself of their wisdom, but be sure you’re involved enough to sign off on what they’re asking for. In the end, if you let your attorney ask for too much and screw the deal, it’s on you.

Where do you find a lawyer? I can only tell you how I found mine. My first option deal was a no-lawyer friendly deal with a producer I knew from a previous film (I was an art director). I signed an option contract that looked fair to my unschooled eye (and it pretty much was), and it ran its course. When the producer wanted to renegotiate an extension, I took that as an opportunity to look for an entertainment attorney, because I figured it would be easier to find a good one when I could say “There’s an offer on the table… can you help me?”.

Then, I reached out to other screenwriters I know, asked for references, and was recommended to a great attorney in Beverly Hills. I was able to contact his offices, reference this other writer’s name, and say “So and so referred me to you. I’ve got an offer on the table. Can you help?”

The short answer, I guess, is network for recommendations.

5 – Why do you get paid?

So if they’re not making your movie (yet) why do you get paid?

Your script is Intellectual Property (IP), and he with the best IP wins. No script, no movie. (Well, that’s not entirely true… plenty of films go into production with no script, but they’ve usually got big stars or big producers behind them. Iron Man comes to mind as a recent example…) IP has inherent value, and potential value. The inherent value is that it’s legally defensible property that you own and control the rights to. The potential value is, of course, what its resulting film (and all that might go with that… merchandise, novelizations, sequels, serializations, TV series, etc.) will be worth.

When you option the script to a producer, you’re transferring your rights in the IP to that producer to use as her own. It’s no longer yours for the period of the option… it’s now an asset in the producer’s portfolio. Even if the film isn’t made, the rights to that asset — control over the potential — are of value to the producer. Why? A producer with a portfolio of ten good producible scripts she’s got exclusive rights to is in a stronger position with potential financiers, studios, production partners, than is a producer with no rights to any scripts. Make sense?

Because you’re giving up an asset with value and taking it off the market, you should be compensated.

6 – How much will you get paid?

Your option contract should include at least two numbers: the option price, and the purchase price.

The option price is what you get for giving the producer rights to your IP, and taking it off the market. The option price is traditionally 10% of the purchase price, and is yours to keep no matter what happens.

The purchase price is just what it sounds like: at some future point defined in the contract, should the producer raise the funds and resources to make the film, she will  “exercise the option” and buy the script from you. This should be prior to the start of principal photography, but could be another negotiated date.

The option price (what you’ve already received) may be applied toward the purchase price… say the purchase is 50K, and you’ve received 5K as the option price (10%). When they exercise, they’ll give you the other 45K. Should they never exercise, you keep the 5K as compensation for being “off the market”. But again, this is all negotiable.

So what is the purchase price?

That’s the trick, isn’t it? If you’re in the Writer’s Guild (WGA), I believe the union minimum right now for a feature script is in the neighborhood of 76K. Of course, the WGA does understand that small movies can’t take that hit, and they’ve got low-budget agreements for those kinds of productions. Ask the WGA for more info – they’re pretty accessible folks, even for non-members.

I’m not currently WGA, and I’m assuming you’re not either. So what do we ask for?

One rule of thumb says the script should account for about 3% of the budget… so if your script is a little indie film that’s being shot on weekends for 50K, figure $1500. A 2MM movie? Shoot for a $60,000 purchase price. Find a balance, and don’t cripple the production with an unreasonable percentage. Be a partner, and an asset, not a financial liability. Instead, negotiate those alternative compensations. Wouldn’t you like to have owned a little backend piece of Paranormal Activity?

7 – What about those “dollar options”?

Again, if you’re in the WGA there are restrictions on how little you can accept… but we’re not WGA. So we’ve got the freedom to strike any deal we want.

The producer may ask you to option your script to them for very little or no money, and while many writers may disagree with me, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. There are good reasons to take low dollar or free options, especially when you’re early in your career — so long as you’re confident that the producer has a reasonably good chance of reaching production, or you’re otherwise going to get some good value and experience from the option. There’s value in getting the opportunity to work with certain people, for instance, or in being allowed to participate and gain experience in a production role.

If you choose to take the dollar option, just bear in mind that you should be reimbursed for that additional concession. In addition to your purchase price, consider negotiating for other compensations, like backend points, or a higher purchase price, or box office bonuses, a first right of refusal on all paid rewrites, the sequel, remakes, etc. Or consider retaining some or all of other rights in exchange for the dollar option, like the novelization, video game, or merchandising rights.

Or at the very least, if there’s little or no money up front, shorten the option period. Mitigate the “off the market” time you’re willing to endure for zero dollars.

8 – How long will the option be?

Options run 6-12 months (usually). At the end of the option period, the producer may have an “extension clause” they can exercise, to get another 3-6 months or more. But if they do, there should be another payment involved.

At the end of the extension, if they really want to hang on to the script, they can ask you to do another extension, or renegotiate the option, or whatever… but then it’s up to you.

All of these numbers are negotiable… how many months, how many extensions, how much additional payment. You’ll want to balance your desire to work with the producer, the time off the market, the likelihood of production, and make a deal you can live with… because once you sign, you’re obligated.

9 – Will they change my script?

In a word, “Yes”.

Every script, by every writer established or new, will go through changes. During my first option, among many other changes, all the characters had their genders reversed, and (I kid you not) a scene with a giant flying corncob was added. Yup. It all made sense to someone somewhere, and those changes, if they appease the right people, are probably bringing your project closer to production. I mean, come on, people don’t add flying corncobs for simply no reason, do they?

For crying out loud, don’t be married to your script. Filmmaking is a collaborative artform, and your option makes you a part of a team. If you’re so in love with your story and will suffer heartache (that money or a produced credit can’t solve when it gets changed), then put it in that drawer and don’t take it out till you can make it yourself, your way.

Negotiate yourself as the writer of any rewrites, polishes, and punch-ups that might be necessary. Maintain some creative control.  Especially if you’re doing one of those dollar-options.

But don’t underestimate the value of having more eyes on your work. There’s a lot to be learned by seeing what another writer does with your stuff, and maybe (just maybe) you’ll like the experience. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll end up sharing credit with a writer of note. And that’s not a bad thing.

If you can, negotiate to protect your credit. Look into the WGA guidelines for which credits mean what. Understand that if WGA writers are brought on to massage your work, they’ll be treated like WGA writers, possibly to your detriment. More on that in Part II.

And this is important – negotiate the rights to any changes or alternative versions created by the producer or on behalf of the producer during the option period. In other words, if the script reverts back to you, so should the rights to any changes made to the script while the producer had it. Otherwise, you’ve got your script back, but the producer potentially still has rights to their version… and now you’re in competition with another version of your script that you don’t control. That’s not a place you want to be.

10 – So why option?

If you were a producer, wouldn’t you rather spend a little money to guarantee your exclusive rights to a great script, and spend a year testing the waters with financiers, production partners and distributors, than buy a script outright for ten times the money only to discover you can’t gain any traction?

As great as you and the producer might think your script is, the production environment is fickle. Deals fall apart all the time. Movies go in and out of production like fashion and fads. The option lets you and the producer partner together with limited liability and obligations well defined, to try to bring your project to the screen. A carefully written and executed option contract makes for good and honest business partners… and that’s what you are, in the end.

So here’s my philosophy. Enjoy the option for what it is: a vote of confidence in your hard work, and an opportunity to learn and network.

Dream about the option turning into a sale and a produced script… and plan for it in your option negotiations. But from a practical standpoint, consider the option the endgame. The option is a great opportunity to learn more about the business, to meet new people, and make new connections. Take full advantage of it (as much as the producer will allow) and be a participant. Producers (many of them, anyway) want to work with writers who do more than just deliver a script and wait for a check… they want a creative partner. Negotiate your right to rewrite and polish, and attack it with everything you’ve got. Prove yourself a team player and a saleable writer.

This industry is all about relationships anyway. If the movie isn’t made, you’ve spent a year on someone’s radar, in this producer’s office, on the phone, meeting her contacts, and showing yourself to be a professional who delivers and is willing to work and play well with others. You’re in her rolodex, and maybe she’ll refer you to her pals.

That may just prove to be payment enough, when it leads to your next big deal.

Coming up…

In part II, I’ll be sharing many of the terms, clauses and points of negotiation I’ve become familiar with, so that when you’re talking to your attorney (and your potential producer) you’ll have at least a little vocabulary to lean on.

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on defining “high concept”

Every so often I see a conversation about “high concept” films or screenplays that goes something like this:

“That was a high concept film.”

“High concept? It was a bunch of explosions and giant robots! What’s so high concept about that?

“That’s poster-child high concept. By definition.”

“No, high concept means a concept with high aspirations… concepts with a higher calling.”

“High concept” does sound like it’d be more applicable to The Seventh Seal than to 2012. And those who lament Hollywood’s penchant for 90 minute action-figure commercials based on video games from the ’70’s might resent the apparent hijacking of the term to mean its exact opposite, somehow projecting value on the valueless by virtue of its semantic favoritism. But it is what it is… the term is firmly embedded in the lexicon of the industry, and now means precisely the opposite of what it sounds like it means.

So I dug up some old notes I’d written a few years ago, and thought I ‘d repost it here, to sort of bubble it back up to the top of the conversation. A few of the links are no longer any good, but you’ll get the point.



A quick Google search turns up:

“A high concept is a one sentence description of a story idea. In Robert Kosberg’s “The Bottom Line of High Concept” chapter in his book, How To Sell Your Idea to Hollywood, he credits the idea of high concept to Barry Diller and Michael Eisner. They created the term when they were young executives at ABC in the late sixties working to promote TV Movies. Diller and Eisner had to devise a way to grab attention in a TV Guide listing with just one or two lines. That’s how the term high concept originated. To capture an audience, that one sentence had to convey just how exciting, sexy, provocative, and entertaining the movie was going to be for them to watch.” The Mega Hit Movies – excerpt from “The Bottom Line of High Concept

“Most of you probably know what “High Concept” means, but for those of you who don’t: High Concept is STORY as star. The central idea of the script is exciting, fascinating, intriguing, and different. High Concept films can usually be summed up in a single sentence or a single image. In this case, “High” does not mean “High Brow” or “High Intelligence”, nor does it mean something that only sounds good when you’re stoned. “High” means big, exciting, larger than life. A small, personal idea may not attract the mass audience that a film requires. We need stories with exciting ideas…” Script Secrets

“Anyone who has ever wondered about the reasoning behind formulaic mainstream films will learn probably more than they wanted to know in this academic examination of high-concept films. Although popularly thought of as films that can be summarized in one sentence, Wyatt, a former market-research analyst for the film industry, defines high concept as “a product differentiated through the emphasis on style in production and through the integration of the film with its marketing.” The author contends that these economically motivated products (films like Flashdance, Top Gun, Batman and Grease) form the most significant strain in motion pictures of the last 20 years.” review of High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (Texas Film Studies Series)

“High Concept?” That’s an idea born thirty years ago, when made-for-TV movies were in their infancy and the industry learned that the most significant difference between these and the traditional feature films was that there was no time for word-of-mouth to sell them. And so “High Concept” came to Hollywood. Plots had to be easy to describe, very compelling, and thus easy to sell. This meant easy-to-sell everywhere– by word-of-mouth with the audiences, by the sales and marketing executives, by the studio executives to the producers, and (very important, this) by the scriptwriters making their pitches to bored studio executives. Remember– easy to describe and very compelling, or, as my accomplished friend put it: “imaginative and wild and simple.” So, fundamentally, “High Concept” is a marketing term. A High Concept is one a knowledgeable Hollywood executive with a chequebook will find fantastically irresistible to his target audience.” Absolute Write

“I took the road less traveled — I fell in with the “high concept” crowd. Those are the people who don’t write scripts, instead creating commercially sellable log lines which can be sold over a phone call or pitch session… There shouldn’t be a lot of explaining to do on your part. A story about a man going through a tough divorce who ultimately reconciles with his wife and returns to his family is not “high concept.” It’s neither fresh nor is there any obvious potential. A story about a guy who wakes up one morning to discover that a tiny alien is living in his head is “high concept.” ” HollywoodLitSales – Steve Kaire has set up 7 deals at the major studios and is an expert on the high-concept pitch.

“What does the term “high concept” mean in the film business? It’s simply a term used to describe a script or a film that a person can easily understand after hearing just a few words. Robin U. Russin and William Missouri Downs define “high concept” in their book Screenplay: Writing the Picture as “a movie’s premise or storyline that is easily reduced to a simple and appealing one liner. Jennifer Lerch in her book, 500 Ways To Beat The Hollywood Script Reader tells us that we want to shoot for high concept scripts because they sell. She says, “A high-concept screenplay can be sold without lengthy explanation by the Hollywood Reader or the Executive Reader.” In addition, Ms. Lerch, a Hollywood Reader herself, says that readers refer to those stories that have a catchy idea and broad appeal as high concept. One thing is certain, a high concept script will sell before a low concept script. For example, Liar, Liar, a script in which a lawyer has to tell the truth for 24 hours was said to be an easy sell. Most blockbuster films (those big action movies that generally come out in the summer) are high concept. Think Terminator, Con Air, Air Force One, Die Hard, etc. But not all high concept movies are big blockbuster-type movies. Movies like The Sixth Sense, American Beauty, The Usual Suspects, and Goodfellas are high concept, but not blockbuster.” ScreenTalk Mag (link now dead)

“Wyatt argues that ‘high concept’ accounts for a specific form of market driven filmmaking which peaked between 1983 and 1986 but includes films as diverse as Flashdance (1983), The Natural (1984), Robin Hood: prince of thieves (1991) and Wayne’s World (1992). The book addresses film style, large-scale changes in market structure, specific marketing tactics and finally proposes striking affinities between this mode of filmmaking and contemporary market research models. Wyatt’s stated goal seems worthy: ‘the project addresses the initially curious supposition that Grease, along with Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977) and Saturday Night Fever (1977), is of much greater significance to American film history than the critically and institutionally recognized films of the period … (p. 22).” from a review of High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (link now dead)

“The Film Council has awarded cash to four young scriptwriters who pitched their thriller, horror or comedy movie ideas in 25 words or less. Many successful Hollywood films, including Steven Spielberg’s jaws and the Oscar-winning historical epic Gladiator, were pitched in this manner. Studios call the device ‘high concept’.” BBC 2003

Yup, “The Industry” sees “High Concept” as a term that means formulaic, easy to pitch, easy to sell… “Aliens invade Earth on the Fourth of July”. “Robots that look like cars bring their war to Earth”. “An adventurer brings a pissed off mummy back to life”.

But “High Concept” doesn’t have to mean “devoid of value”. As writers we can choose to write really really good High Concept stories, or really really lousy High Concept stories. Take it as a challenge… take your thoughtful, complex characters and put them in a High Concept situation and see what happens. What if you got the assignment to write the screen adaptation of Ms. Pacman? What would you do to bring humanity and pathos (or whatever high falutin’ things it is you want to write) to the little yellow round lady?

Sometimes it’s just those kinds of challenges that really test our mettle.

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