For authors unfamiliar with show business, few words will evoke the sheer magic of ‘They’ve optioned my book!’ That means someone has paid an author a certain amount of money to allow least the possibility (the ‘option’) of making that story into a movie, television drama, series, webcast, etc.
Hold on there, pilgrim. You’re not on Easy Street yet. Some options can give an author thousands (or millions) in upfront cash, with the promise of further payouts should the project be finished and successful. Having your name on screen credit is also a great way to attach rocket boosters to your backlist.
But…not all options are equal. Scam or incompetent publishers like to trumpet that one or more of their books ‘have been optioned by a studio’. If you look deeper, the ‘studio’ is likely to be another of the publisher’s side projects or run by an associate. As with low-quality book trailers, free press releases, and paid YouTube reviews, these ‘options’ are given mainly to make the author feel good and brag to their family and friends. Any legitimate financial payoff is secondary to convincing the (often fee-paying) author to buy more services and publishing packages for more books.
Some options are issued by respectable small studios and developers. But they’re only a few hundred dollars – a token payment – and the projects languish until their contract time or issuing company expires. Most options never amount to much past that one-time payment. Movie studios have been accused of gobbling up options rights and then sitting on them, just to keep them out of competitors’ hands. (I’ve also heard the opposite, that some studios won’t buy until the last possible minute.)
A friend of mine has a short story currently going through pre-pre-option possible negotiations. We’ve all got our fingers crossed for her. Having a movie, cable, or TV option to your credit is a great way to make the non-writerly relatives shut the hell up about ‘getting a real job.’
For some years, M/M fantasy author Lynn Flewelling had an option on her ‘Nightrunners’ series, from a small studio. I would have loved to see that show, but alas, it never happened. I know several other authors who got a couple of mortgage payments or a used car out of option money.
Sometimes (most of the time*) a large studio will option a book or story, make the project after shutting out the original author completely, and the result will look very little like the original story. The Walt Disney Company, sniffing around for material for its ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ franchise, optioned Tim Powers’ On Stranger Tides. (Follow that link for some great movie and book comparisons, and Powers’ own remarkably professional take on options and movies based on books.) That option eventually became Pirates movie #4, which was okay, but nowhere as dark, philosophical, well-researched, or lovely as Powers’ book. But at least they paid him and gave him some screen credit. And maybe more people went and read his books.
Cash is the pleasant daydream. Theft is the nightmare. Most of the time, experienced authors, editors, and agents take great care to explain to anxious newbies: ‘No one is going to steal your book. It’s unlikely, so stop worrying about it.’ Most of the time, those nervous newbies are simply not telling a story worth stealing.
Options are the gray area where theft can happen, often because the author doesn’t understand what they are signing away. Newer or mid-career authors with a solid story are in more danger from unscrupulous and/or incompetent studios. They’re also not as likely to have sharp literary agents and legal counsel, if at all.
There’s a quiet, landmark intellectual property case playing out right now that most authors haven’t heard about yet. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t, and was thus partly (infinitesimally) responsible for making it worse for the author.
You see, in 2013 I blogged a mostly enthusiastic review of the movie Gravity. Many people saw the movie. Maybe ten saw my review.
What I didn’t realize was that Tess Gerritsen was suing Warner for not only not honoring her option with New Line for her book Gravity (with the same director involved!), but going ahead with Warner’s version of Gravity after buying out New Line. Last month the judge threw out the original case, but allowed Gerritsen to refile an amended claim. If that reaches trial or settlement in her favor, she stands to win a substantial amount of money (probably in a decade or so, because lawsuits are often very sloooooow.)
From what I’ve read online, both projects share more than vague similarities. Gerritsen’s case doesn’t really hinge on those, but on the fact that Warner Bros. may essentially have already owned – but did not honor – the option on Gerritsen’s novel.
What does this mean to the average writer, maybe an e-rom writer working for a tiny publisher? Other than ‘run away from Hollywood!’ Check carefully what rights you are granting your publisher. Can they effectively develop those rights, or are they just doing a rights grab in case your book becomes a phenomenon? If you do not have an agent to help you negotiate options, find one, or a legal professional who knows that part of the business. Brush up on the differences between types of intellectual property claims. Understand the quality of the option and its offering company, the likelihood of it turning into a real studio project, and the timeframe involved.
That could mean the difference between one mortgage payment, a well-earned fortune, or watching your story ride off into the sunset without you.**
* For a hilarious, snarky, and terrifyingly accurate take on how Hollywood actually treats most writers, check out the series Episodes.
** GIFs from the Disney movie Tangled.