Welcome to Development Hell
Part III: Game over, man. Game over!
Over the last 10 years, I have optioned nearly every single script I have written. And outside of a few short scripts, I have NEVER seen a feature script make it to production. I have watched each script painstakingly go through the development process, only to fall apart with little to no warning. That means that I’ve done years of re-writes multiple times for multiple scripts, with next to nothing to show for it.
Thankfully, as mentioned several posts ago, I no longer work for free (and you shouldn’t either). My last option that collapsed lasted for THREE YEARS. And think about it honestly: would you do ANY job for three years with absolutely no pay? Sure, I could go on a tangent about how it’s my passion and the joy of writing should be good enough for me, but screw that, I have a family, and three years is a long time. I can’t imagine if I looked back on the entirety of that time and realized I literally had nothing to show for it.
And THAT’S why they’re paying you. Not only for your time (and the time the script is off the market), but for the off-chance that NOTHING happens with your script. If nothing happens with your script and you have no money to show for it, what can you actually say about the last three years (give or take) of work you’ve done? I’ve done $0 options before, and when the years have passed and the project collapses, you look back and realize that is time you can’t get back. And worse, your idea might be outdated by that time. Several years ago, the three year option script was original and had a unique selling point. Now, when I try to pitch it, I get responses like “I’ve had two people try to pitch a script like this in the past couple months.”
The biggest thing independent filmmakers love to fall back on are points, instead of pay. The very first option I had was for one dollar, but man, oh man, did I have lot of points on the back end. I remember feeling pretty damn proud of myself, negotiating the percentage of my points higher than what was originally offered. Unfortunately, the filmmaker held onto the script for a couple years and eventually gave it back to me, thus making my points completely and utterly worthless. You can have a million percentage points, but it’s pointless (heh.) if you don’t end up with a film. (Add that to the fact that even if you DO get a film, those points are probably worthless. Seriously, get cash up front.)
It’s going to be hard to tell people your option fell apart. You know how I said, in the last entry, that you’ve probably told your friends and family, and they’re most likely always asking for updates? Well, now you get to tell those same skeptical people that your project fell apart. It will come to the point, if you’re like me and have had several options that didn’t work out, that the people you know will become skeptical of optioning/development. It’s like how people get less and less excited with each kid you have. Everyone’s pumped with the first one – sending you congrats and what not – but by the forth, it’s like “Alright already, you can have kids. Hooray. Let me know when they do something worthwhile.” Same thing with optioning. I can see it in people’s eyes now. I tell them I optioned something, but all I see is “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let me know when it’s a movie.”
The biggest fear you will have is people thinking your script didn’t get made because it isn’t good. That YOU’RE the problem. Let me just say: that’s bullshit. It’s not your fault if your script doesn’t get made. There are so many factors at play in securing funding for a film, that it is horribly simplistic to blame it entirely on the quality of the script. It’s not just the good scripts that make it to production. Don’t believe me? Take a look at ANY section on Netflix Instant. If it WAS your script, odds are it was because your script didn’t fit a particular mold. Your script isn’t the type of script you can point to and say “THIS is why it will make money.” And when you’re trying to secure funding, it’s all about finding out what is “sellable” about your script. Your script being “good” sadly isn’t enough. My last story session with the director concentrated more on “what would sell” than what would make for a good story. (Spoiler alert: any scene over two pages – doesn’t sell)
I’m more confident about my current project in development than I have been about any project before it. I would be shocked if I received an e-mail telling me they were pulling the plug. I fully expect it to go into production. Which is great, because they told me I could have 125% of the film’s profits. Suckers.
About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew? Email PJ at firstname.lastname@example.org.