The Film Optioning Process for Novels

One of the most exciting calls or emails an author can hope to get is from a producer telling them that they love the writer’s story and would like to turn it into a movie! If you are an author yourself, the producer might talk to you about optioning the rights to your book. When that happens, you need to know exactly what an option is and understand the process that goes along with it. 

What is an Option?

An option is an agreement between a movie producer, studio, or production company and the author of the book that gives the temporary exclusive rights to the producer to purchase the screenplay and make a movie. Keep in mind that when a producer or studio options your book, this is not a guarantee that a movie will actually be made. 

What are the Details to a Movie Option?

When a producer purchases the option to your novel you are giving the producer the chance to buy the rights to the screenplay. The screenplay is usually not written yet, so the contractual agreement will outline a start and end date for how long the producer must make the purchase - the option period. During this time, the author cannot discuss or enter into any other contracts with another producer or studio.

During the term of your contract with the optioning producer, that producer will have a very long list of things that are necessary to package your novel into a pitch for a movie deal. The producer is the one who will have to find the financial backing for the following:

  1. Hire a screenwriter
  2. Get a director interested
  3. Put out a call for casting
  4. Pitch to a movie studio or financiers
  5. Finalize the screenplay
  6. Finalize the movie deal

As the author, you may play a small or large part in the processes. Some authors are asked for their input in casting, filming locations, and other details. Some authors, especially those with large social media followings or prior experience on best-seller lists, may be included in the pitch to help prove the marketability of the novel to a studio. 

How Much is An Author Paid for an Option?

Authors and their publishers do not actually sell the rights to the content until after the movie deal is finalized and production begins. During an option, authors are paid for the right of exclusivity. This payment is usually only a few thousand dollars but varies depending on book and producer. Most optioning contracts will include a purchase price - the amount to be paid once the movie is greenlit. This payment releases the rights to the book rights and is substantially higher than the cost to option, usually being a percentage of the total budget of the movie with a floor and ceiling amount.

Contract Lengths

The contractual agreement for an option will usually be 12-18 months but can vary depending on the producer. After the contract is up, that producer may still work on the project and try to secure a movie deal; however, they will no longer have the exclusive rights. This means that as the author you have the right to option to other producers.

Included in your contract to option may be also the right for the producer to get an extension on the exclusive optioning rights. Pay attention to your contract to whether you as the author will be paid for this. Often, the producer may not include a payment for the extension in the contract. If you have had interest from other producers for your novel to be optioned for a movie before you have signed an optioning agreement, you should request payment for an extension be included in your contract. Make sure you always have competent legal advice before signing any deals.