S2 E21 - The Business of Hollywood: How do I get My Story Made into a Movie?
On the last episode, I talked about how writers are potentially getting ripped off because they don't understand the business of Hollywood. Today, I address how Hollywood actually works. How does the business work? What is the order? What are the terms? What are the expectations? How do you get an independent project made? If somebody comes to you and claims to be a producer who wants to option your script or your novel, what should you expect? What's legit? Why would they option it? What does that even mean?
It can be very, very confusing. To alleviate that, this episode addresses some of the basic terms and procedures of the entertainment industry so that writers who are working in it, or writers who aren't, will have the knowledge they need to navigate the industry anyway. You don't want to get scammed. But you also don't want to miss out on legitimate opportunities because you're afraid of getting scammed. And you also don't want to get too greedy because you don't understand how the business works.
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THE STORYTELLER’S MISSION WITH ZENA DELL LOWE
Season 2: E21: The Business of Hollywood: How do I get My Story Made into a Movie?
Published January 20, 2022
INTRO: Hello, and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
TOPIC INTRODUCTION: So, last time, I talked about how writers are potentially getting ripped off, because they don't understand how Hollywood works. And I went through a couple of "opportunities" that had been presented to some recent friends of mine, who were asking for advice on whether or not those opportunities were legit. Today, what I want to do is go over how Hollywood actually works. How does the business work? What is the order? What are the terms? What are the expectations? How do you get an independent project made? If somebody comes to you and claims to be a producer who wants to option your script or your novel, what should you expect? What's legit? Why would they option it? What does that even mean? Is that a purchase? Who knows about these things? Right? It can be very, very confusing. So, what are some of the basic terms and procedures of the entertainment industry so that writers who are working in it, or writers who are not working in it, ultimately have the knowledge they need to not get ripped off. You don't want to get scammed. But you also don't want to miss out on legitimate opportunities, because you're afraid of getting scammed. And you also don't want to get too greedy, because you don't understand how the business works.
So, first of all, one of the reasons why there isn't a definitive handbook about how to make a movie and what the particular steps are, is that getting a movie made happens in a variety of ways. There is no standard procedure. It's not like buying a house where you go through step one, step two, step three. It's a lot more complex. And there's a variety of ways that it could happen. So the problem is, I can't give you step one, step two, step three and if you follow these steps it will happen. I can just tell you some of the big things that need to happen, and I can give you some examples.
And the number one thing that has to happen is that you have to have a script, a story that you are going to promote.
You have to have a story that is basically at the center of what you're doing. That's the thing that you're offering the world. That is the center of the whole thing: Story, story story. And if you're trying to get a movie made, that means that it has to translate into a solid screenplay. A lot of times you can start with a story and people will get on board from the beginning just based on the story. But at some point, you have to have a locked in script that is viable, that people can get behind. If you don't, you'll lose those people that came along board because you don't have anything that you can stand on. The screenplay is the blueprint for the production process. Without the screenplay, you have nothing. Even a novel is not enough to get something made. It's great if you have a novel that you want to get made into a movie. But the problem is, before it can get made into a movie, it has to be made into a script. And so maybe the novel gets everything started. But nothing can actually happen until you have a solid script. So the very number one thing is you have to have a script.
Now, having said that, let me tell you a couple of different routes that I have seen among my friends in terms of getting a project made. For example, let's say I have a friend in the business and we just get along really, really well. And we decide, "You know what? We should make a movie together. You have connections, I have connections, let's make something." So, we might start on the basis of a desire to partner together because we are like-minded, we get along, we have great connection, a great vibe, fill in each other's weaknesses and strengths. And that is a prime reason, by the way, why people partner together to try to find a project to make. And that means they come together because of each other rather than because of a particular script or story idea. But then they have to come up with a viable project idea. Once they decide, "Yeah, we should work together." Now they have to get a story. It always always centers on a story. It always has to be based on the project. Nothing can happen without a story.
All right. So maybe another route might be that you happen to have a connection to a pretty successful actor, somebody that does pretty well in the business, and you want to write a project for them to star in because they're a good avenue and that means you have a name attached to the project. That's fantastic. You start the relationship based on the friendship and the project comes second. You develop the project out of the relationship. Nevertheless, notice that you have to develop the project. What you need before you can do pretty much anything in this business, before you can move forward is, you must figure out what the project idea is. And then you have to work at getting the script. So you can establish a few partnerships at the get go based on a mutual desire to work together. But then you must find a mutually agreed upon project to work on. Until there's a project, until there's a finished script, you're stuck at that particular stage of the process.
But let's say that you go off and you write something really good, or you have a novel and you have a friend who is a screenwriter, and they adapt your novel for free. And so now the two of you are sort of in it together, what do you do now? You have a script. What do you do? Well, what you need is a producer.
Okay, so now let's say that you're a screenwriter who has a finished screenplay, and you know it's really good. You've submitted it to a couple of film festivals.It's won. Maybe won the grand prize. You know it's a good project, what do you do? Or, let's say you've written a fabulous novel, and it's won all sorts of awards. And in your mind, you know this is a great film. It's very visual, it moves. It's exciting. Everybody tells you, "Oh, my gosh, it was like a movie in my head when I was reading it." So you know that it's viable, but you don't know anybody in the film business. What do you do?
So, if you're the novelist, do you need to get it made into a screenplay first? Not necessarily. In fact, I wouldn't. Because problem is, unless you happen to have a screenwriter friend, or unless you want to try doing it yourself, you're going to have to pay for that. Now, you could do that. You can. I've been hired by a number of novelists to adapt their novel into a screenplay. And that's a legitimate thing to do if you really want to go that route. It means that the development company won't have to pay for that later. But you don't have to do that. It means you're going to be out of pocket. And maybe you can't afford that. So you could test it before you went that route by trying to get it to a production company or trying to get it to a producer who would want to option it, and they would then take on the responsibility of developing it into a screenplay. Or if you're a screenwriter, and you already have a finished screenplay, well, then you just go straight to that step, where you try to have a producer or a production company spearhead the project. You basically need somebody to champion your story.
So, the easiest way to do it, then, of course, is if you already happen to know a producer. If you happen to know a producer, you take it to that producer, somebody that's a friend of yours, but this is getting harder and harder, because most producers that I know of today, including myself, and I'm only a producer by default, most producers are not looking for finished scripts written by others. Most of them already have the story ideas in mind that they want to make. They already know what they're working on, what they're trying to do. And they're hiring writers to implement, a lot of times, what their vision is or what their story idea is. But usually, they're not looking for random, original screenplays. But there's always exceptions to that. So there's nothing wrong with approaching a friend of yours if they happen to be a producer and saying, "Here's my pitch, you know, here's my treatment, or my synopsis of my script, would you give it a read." And if they liked the synopsis, or if they liked the logline, maybe they'll give it a read. And you never know, you could get lucky. But just know, it is a long shot. Because most people are not taking solicitations these days. It's the overall trend in Hollywood. The days of indie spec scripts are almost completely gone. So writing an original screenplay, and then taking it to the powers that be to get that project produced is harder now than ever. But that doesn't mean it couldn't happen.
Now, regardless of how hard it might be to get a producer, the point is, you have to get a producer. If you have a finished feature script that is actually good enough and ready to be made into a feature film, then what you need to do is find a producer for your project or become a producer yourself.
Now let me just expand on why for just a second. Why do you want to find a producer or why would you maybe want to consider producing the project yourself? Why do you need a producer? What does the producer do? Well, the producer is in charge of the entire thing. They are in charge of putting the whole project together, the whole thing, that's what the producer does. They put the project together. Meaning that they help find financing for it, they help with the casting, they help with the production team, they help find distribution, they find locations, they figure out the tax incentives, and basically know everything that there is to know about the project. They work with the states that they shoot in. They try to maximize the return for their investors. They try to keep the budget under control while it's being shot. They try to rein in their director, or if things are out of whack, it's like, "Hey, we got to move on, you got to wrap this up, we got to move on to the next scene. Because we're burning daylight here, people, let's go, let's go, let's go." They deal with everything. They deal with catering, they deal with all the vendors that are going to be on that project. The producer deals with everything, they have their hand in every single thing on the project. They are the most powerful person on a film production, because they are the ones that gave birth to that baby.
This is why they're the ones that win the Academy Award for Best Picture, because it wouldn't have happened without the producer. Now, there's a difference between an executive producer and a producer. Believe it or not, the executive producer is usually just somebody that helps finance, or maybe helps with distribution, but they're not actually the ones that are doing the work. It's the producer, plain and simple, "Produced by..." That is the credit that is the gold in Hollywood. They are the most important person on the project. They're the ones who get to hire and fire everybody else. So they put together the entire project from start all the way to finish, which means that they're the one taking the biggest risk. Why?
Because it takes a long time to get a project from start to finish, usually three to five years. Think about that. A producer, when they take on a project, they're committing to three to five years of their life. And that's if things go relatively smoothly. There are stories where it's taken 10 years for a producer to get a project from start to finish. That is incredible. And the reason that's a problem is because, guess what? They don't usually get paid until we go into production. So, if it takes two years to put the front end parts of the project together, if it takes two years to do that, they're not getting paid while they're doing it. Imagine that. They only get paid, usually, once the project goes into production, and then they get a little chunk. So the producer is investing in the project for the longest period of time, they're taking the biggest risk of anybody. They're also doing the most work, because they're the ones that have to find everybody else. Film is a collaborative medium. They're the ones that are finding the financiers, which is probably one of the toughest deals. But once they get financing, they still have to find everybody else. They have to do it all. Which is why they should win the Oscar for Best Picture.
But this also means that if a producer takes on a project, they better believe in it, because they're going to eat, sleep and breathe this project. It's a long term investment on their part, and they usually don't get paid until the project actually goes into production. So no wonder why they are picky.
Now again, if you're trying as a writer to get your script or your novel optioned, the person that you're going to be dealing with is the producer or the production company. Now, there are "indie producers," that means, you know, one man bands. There's lots of them, and they're great. There's a lot of great ones. There's a lot of bad ones, too. I'll probably have to talk differently at another time about bad producers and how to spot them and identify them because there's a lot of people that are really good at talking. And in fact, producers kind of get that reputation. These are the guys that are the big talk. You know, "Oooh, I've got this project going on." And they can kind of bamboozle you with their golden goose and all the shiny things that they throw your way and man, can they talk a big talk. It doesn't mean they can actually deliver what they're talking about. So you need to have criteria to know how to identify legit producers versus illegitimate ones.
Having said that, there are also production companies. There's small independent production companies all the way up to studios. And they're the ones of course that have the most power. And if you're dealing with a studio, my advice is, make sure you have an entertainment lawyer, but they're essentially going to be fair and offer you what is the regulation according to the union, whether it be WGA, or if you're an actor, SAG. I mean, generally speaking, they're going to follow all the right rules, because it hurts too much to not. And believe me, your project isn't worth enough for them to try to rip you off if they think they could be sued. Because WGA protects you, even if you're not in the union. So, really, the bigger the production company, the more you're kind of protected. Nevertheless, most production companies aren't studios anymore, and even studios are having some difficulty. And they aren't usually probably going to deal with smaller projects or unknowns, so you're probably not going to have to worry about that, which means you're probably going to deal with smaller production companies to some degree. But this means, still, the first step is an option agreement.
So, what is an option agreement?
Well, an option agreement is when they are offering to pay you a small amount for the right to try to develop your story; for the right to try to take this script, or this novel, out into the world, out to their connections, to see if they can generate interest and get people to come on board, either as investors, or to see if they can raise enough money to turn your novel into a screenplay in the first place. See, here's the thing: it costs them money. They have to pay people for everything. So that's why they pay you a small amount and they're not actually buying you out. All an option is, is it gives them the option of buying you out. It gives them the option to do that if they find that they're able to generate enough interest in your project. That's super important. So generally speaking, and again, all deals are different. An option agreement is going to run anywhere, say, from a year to three years. Maybe they're going to ask for the right to try to see if they can develop your project for three years. And then they're going to pay you a particular sum to do that. The smaller the production company, the smaller that number. I, myself as a writer, have had things optioned for $100. And you know what? That's fine. Because I build in and they build in into the contract, into the option contract, there is stuff built in there that if, indeed, they are able to generate enough interest to raise enough money to move forward with this project, then come the day of the first day of principal photography, then I'm going to get paid X amount of money. That's when I get paid for the script. When they go into production.
I don't get paid until the producer knows they have a viable project. Why?
Well, because if a producer had to front the money and pay for the project at the outset, it's too big of a financial risk. It's already a risk for them. They're not going to get paid for another two to five years. So, no, nobody would ever be a producer if they had to pay you outright for your story or for your script. So, this gives them some risk free ability to see if they can develop it. It's in your interest, and it's in theirs, to allow for them to buy an option.
And you don't want to get greedy with the option. I've known writers who want to earn $10,000 for an option. I mean, if it's a studio, maybe, but if it's some guy who has legit credentials, he probably can't afford that. If it's some guy that is a legitimate producer, but who is independent, then he can't probably afford $10,000. He might offer you $300. Or he might offer you $100. And you just have to know that that is not a ripoff. That can actually be legit. So, keep that in mind.
Now, once the project gets optioned, what the producer does is they go around and they try to develop your project. If it's a novel, they try to get it made into a screenplay, which means they have to pay out of pocket to a screenwriter. So, they're taking an even bigger risk. That's a big deal. That's why it's hard for them to typically do that. Now, that means also that for writers that are novelists, probably your best bet is going to be to go to a production company that is used to paying some money to writers that are novelists for their novel, for the option right of the novel. It's a little less risky for a production company that has financing in place for that company. So, a big part of the option agreement is that it's basically a risk free thing for the producer, that you're giving them permission to try to raise money to get your project made but without it costing them everything out of pocket. It's just so expensive to make a film. And it's just so crazy, it's so hard to make a movie that nobody would be able to do it if they had to pay a bunch of money from the outset.
But in that option agreement, there will be terms of purchase, and there will be terms for length of time, and at the end of a length of time, (where they basically, this is how much time they have to try to put the project together) if they aren't able to do it, then the rights revert back to you. So you're not out anything. And then you can go and sell it to somebody else and get the option money. So, a lot of times a writer might have a project that's been optioned three times, and it's only the third production company that is able to put the deal together for whatever reason, but you got paid every time for the same piece of work. So not so bad.
Now, most of the time, you probably are going to option it for more than $100. It just depends on who's trying to do it. But I wouldn't run just because it's only $100, depending on the person that is trying to make that offer. Just know that in the contract, you need to make sure that the rights revert back to you after a particular period of time.
Now, the other reason the option agreement is important is it establishes something called Chain of Title. In essence, a production company has to go through the process of validating chain of title for credit purposes, for... it basically protects them from getting sued at the end of the day. They have to know who owns this. What is the chain of title? So it's a safeguard for both parties.
On the one hand, that safeguards the producer, because they don't have to shell out a bunch of money at the get go before they know if there's even a market for it or people interested. And it safeguards you as the writer because it guarantees a particular monetary amount upon the project being greenlit, or once the project starts principal photography. Furthermore, it establishes the chain of title, which is important because you can't even get financing without proper chain of title. And the producer has the right, then, to make your film, and that's why everybody needs it in writing. That's why you want to sign an option agreement if it's being offered and it just helps clear up everything. There's no confusion. You know what the terms of the deal are. You never ever want to make a verbal deal. You can say yes, but then you want to get it in writing. You want it to be a legitimate deal. Even if you're working with friends.
And in fact, if you're working with friends, you want to try to get in writing at the get go, what the payment structure or tier is going to be, and when that's going to be, because man, it can ruin a friendship faster than you can say, "applesauce," if you don't have those boundaries clearly established. Sometimes it's working with friends that get you in the most trouble because you think you're on the same page, and then as opportunities start to come up, you realize, "Oh, shoot, you're not," and you haven't established those things in advance. And so now there's anger and resentment, and everybody feels like they're getting ripped off, even if they're not. So, you really, really want to make sure that you get things down in writing from the get go.
CLOSING: Nevertheless, once somebody has the option, once the producer has the option, then they're free to go out and try to raise money for your project. And there's a lot of ways that they might try and do this. So, next time, that's what I'll try to address so that you understand what the producer goes through to try to get your project made.
CALL TO ACTION: In the meantime, I hope that this has been helpful to you. And I encourage you, check out the website at www.thestorytellersmission.com. I offer coaching, I offer script critiques. And if I can be of service in helping you make your project viable so that a producer may, in fact, want to make your project, then I would love to do that.
OUTRO: In the meantime, you've been listening to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.