Screenwriting 101: Option and the Renewal

By Brock Cooper (doddleNEWS)

There are a lot more film ideas optioned each year than are made. It’s just the way the industry works. A studio can option hundreds of stories and concepts, but only make a few dozen a year, and all the while they are optioning more movies.

The option agreement, which is different than a writer’s agreement, basically says that you give this person, company or studio the right to exclusively make your movie. You retain the rights to the story and characters, but the group in the contract has the sole right to make the movie based on your ideas.

It outlines the rights of the writer and person or entity buying the option. Basically, you agree to keep them exempt from any legal proceedings if someone says you stole their idea and that nothing is libelous, etc.

It also states how much the writer is getting for the option and a time limit that the studio has to act on the agreement. This is perhaps the most important part of the contract. The buyer can’t sit on an option forever, there is a time limit. That limit is set in the contract and the longer the limit, the more money the writer gets.

The writer is giving up a lot by optioning the film. He can’t shop it around anymore, so it’s just going to sit until the movie is made. If the buyer doesn’t move forward with the project within the time allotted, then they have the right to renew it for a specified amount of money.

This requires a new agreement and another time frame for them to get it done. The writer is given more money…yay for us…and the buyer gets a second chance. Since this is a new agreement, your lawyer should look over it and make sure no deceitful language was sneaked into it. (It is Hollywood after all.)

With the renewal signed, the writer sits back and waits to hear word about production. If the buyer does not move forward again, and doesn’t seek another renewal, then the rights revert back to the writer and you can once again shop it around. This can be a double-edged sword. It means you have to do the legwork all over again or the many people waiting in line for your idea can start bidding for it. Good luck.


  1. Robert Seidenberg says:

    Option/Purchase agreements generally are comprehensive documents that run to many pages, particularly if the purchaser is a studio or significant producer. While I can’t go into details here I would like to clarify and expand on a couple of Brock’s points. First, regarding the writer’s retention of rights in the characters and story, only some of those rights (publication rights, for example) would be retained if the option is exercised. The purchaser would have the right to use the story and characters in its motion picture or pictures (if sequel/remake rights are granted) and often the writer would be prohibited from selling to anyone else the motion picture rights in a writing using the same or similar story lines and/or characters except that sometimes only principal characters are proscribed. Second, extension of an option would not usually need another agreement. The agreement usually provides for an initial option period and gives the purchaser the right to extend the option for a specified additional option period. Any further extension would be handled by a simple amendment agreement. The payment for the initial option period is almost always credited against the purchase price if the option is exercised, while the payment for the extended option period often is not.

    Brock is definitely correct that the writer should consult a lawyer. While leverage often governs a negotiation that doesn’t necessarily mean that the lawyer will be unable to get changes made.