How To Option a Screenplay in Only Four Years

Yesterday I finally forwarded a rough seven-page outline to my producers, detailing the changes I want to make in the next draft of the script they optioned — a project which, for the time being, we’ll refer to as the Wedding Comedy. I’m feeling a little ashamed; it’s been a week since our notes meeting and it took me all this time to put together the outline. Back in the day, it would’ve taken me a weekend, tops, but then again I never had to contend with diaper changes and feedings and the occasional emergency trip to Target to pick up a new cache of Huggies.

I’m always a little leery of showing an outline to anyone other than my trusted circle of readers. On the one hand, the producers told me, “Whatever you want to run by us, we’re here for you.” On the other hand, what they’re really saying is, “Whatever you want to run by us, we’re here for you… unless it sucks, in which case we’d prefer that you keep it to yourself, thank you very much.” You want to bounce ideas off them, but you don’t want to risk killing their enthusiasm with too many dumb or half-baked ones. My outlines tend to be pretty vague, too — the stories seem to come to life in the details, not the plotting. But if you DON’T share your outline, you might go off on your merry way, spend a couple of months writing a draft and hand it in, only to have your reader tell you that it’s exactly, precisely NOT what they were hoping for. This has happened to me. It’s not fun.

So I sent them the outline and got to bask in the warm, fuzzy glow of A) actually accomplishing something on the writing front, and B) being able to slack off (or blog) for the rest of the day without feeling guilty. Hopefully they’ll come back to me with a minimum of suggestions and I’ll then begin cranking out the revised pages sometime this week. In the meantime, I’ll indulge in some mental R&R by rocking a few rounds of BIOSHOCK, catching up on some reading or — most likely — staring, glassy-eyed, at my daughter as she sleeps in her crib, waiting for her to start crying again.

So how did I get to this point, anyway? (Dealing with script rewrites, I mean. You can probably figure out how I ended up with the baby.) The story of the Wedding Comedy is a pretty good case study of what can happen to your average script…

In the fall of 2004, I proposed to my girlfriend. Astoundingly — at least from my perspective — she accepted. When the euphoria wore off, I realized, “Holy shit, now we have to figure out how to pay for this thing.” Her parents were dead, so the traditional route of matrimonial funding wasn’t an option; ultimately my own folks helped out in a huge way, but we didn’t know this at first. We needed money, and lots of it.

One night, while idly pondering our situation, I had a totally absurd thought about how I could theoretically pay for the wedding. I actually made myself laugh, and when I pitched it to the Missus (my then-fiancee) she laughed, and it dawned on me: this was a movie, and as far as I could recall, no one had ever made it. And that was that — the next six months of my life were spent writing the Wedding Comedy, workshopping it with my writing group, soliciting feedback from my trusted circle of readers and burning through about 15 drafts (though some were more radically reworked than others).

By August of 2005, I had a draft that impressed one of my readers, a friend we’ll call JT. I originally met JT a couple of years before when, as an assistant at a prominent production company, he’d heard about my superhero comedy through the grapevine and asked to read it; he flipped over the script and quickly became my champion, throwing it at various execs, to no avail. But we became buddies and he turned into — and still is — an excellent source for feedback. So JT read the latest incarnation of the Wedding Comedy and asked if he could show it to a few friends in the biz. Not being an idiot (or not much of one, anyway), I said of course. One of the friends to whom JT showed the script was a manager who loved it and signed me. Working with his producing partners, WriterDad Manager #2 made a plan to go wide with the Wedding Comedy, sending it out across town in an attempt to start a bidding war. They were excited. I was excited. One day that fall, they finally put the plan into motion.


Manager #2 forwarded me the feedback as it finally filtered in — the script was too soft, not raunchy enough, too much of a romantic comedy, not enough of a romantic comedy, yadda, yadda, yadda. It was like my NATIONAL GUARD experience all over again.

But all was not lost — turned out that a development person at a prodco on the Universal lot liked the script. A lot. Not enough to buy it, of course, but still — she liked it a lot. I was called in for a meeting and we discussed the script, which she didn’t think was ready to show to her bosses. But if I made the changes that she was suggesting, maybe we’d have a shot with them.

Encouraged by this little ray of light, I went off and rewrote the script (on spec) based on her notes. The new draft was done by the spring of 2006, and when I handed in the script… crickets again. Eventually Manager #2 found out that she’d just lost interest in the project. We were dead in the water.

At that point I had moved on to my next project, so I wasn’t too broken up over this turn of events. At least I now had an admittedly tighter draft of the Wedding Comedy, which, because it had been turned down across town, was finished as a spec but still served as an excellent writing sample when the occasion arose.

Flash forward a year later, to the spring of 2007. In the meantime I’d had a true close call with my next script (a near-sale that was ultimately derailed by Dane Cook — something for a later blog post). Manager #2 was still using the Wedding Comedy as a sample, and submitted it to a production company to put me in the running for an open assignment. The producers read my script and promptly fell in love with it — what’s more, they had an idea of a reality star who could play the lead. The producers forwarded the script to the guy’s manager, who loved it and passed it on to the guy himself, who also loved it. Meetings were had, vague plans were made. But weirdly enough, nobody was offering to option my script yet — though they were proceeding as if they had. I rolled with it, figuring that it wasn’t like anything else was happening with the script. What the hell.

In August of 2007, the producers and Manager #2 went wide with the Wedding Comedy again, this time with the reality star attached and sporting a new title so readers couldn’t find in their databases that they’d already passed on the original spec draft. Not that it mattered: everybody passed again this time anyway. Given that the producers were pushing it as a raunchy comedy, execs thought the script was too soft, not raunchy enough. Bastards. They were right, of course, but they were still bastards.

Then the WGA strike in late 2007 killed our momentum. The various writer-directors the producers were trying to woo couldn’t touch the project. Everybody started to drift their separate ways. When the strike ended and the smoke cleared, Manager #2 informed me that the script was dead. Yet again.

By April of 2008, I was at loose ends. The Missus was pregnant, we had moved from West LA to the Valley, I had been laid off from my day job and I had parted ways with Manager #2, finding myself unrepresented and unemployed for the first time in years. Not a great period in my life. And then, out of the blue, the phone rang — the producers wanted to revive the Wedding Comedy. And they were bringing in another company to co-produce, a company with private equity behind them. The Wedding Comedy would be made as a dirt-cheap, non-WGA indie. And they wanted to finally option the script.

Various legal hurdles — most of them having nothing to do with me — had to be overcome over the next couple of months, but on July 3rd, a messenger delivered copies of the option-purchase agreement at my house for me to sign. I received my option check — the first (relatively) substantial amount of money I’d ever earned from my writing — a week later, the day after the Missus and I brought our daughter home from the hospital. The project is being fast-tracked for production this fall.

Of course, the whole thing could — and most likely will — go kaflooey at any point between now and then for any number of reasons, not the least of which being that I fail to deliver what the producers expect of me (i.e., turning the script into the raunchfest-with-a-heart that everybody had been saying it should’ve been all along). If they do exercise their option and make the movie, the screenplay purchase price won’t be enough for me to quit my day job (though, admittedly, it should be enough to zero the counter financially for us, which certainly counts as an amazing success in my book), and because it’s a non-union production the sale won’t get me into the Guild. BUT — I would have a movie made. And isn’t that why I set out to do this with my life in the first place?

So what have we learned, Charlie Brown? I suppose the main lesson is that sometimes a script is like a Romero zombie — you think the damned thing is finally dead but it just keeps going no matter how much you beat it with a shovel. Things may not turn out the way you hoped, but that doesn’t mean they won’t turn around in the future. This whole experience illustrates the main principle that I’ve learned in my time in Hollywood: there’s no such thing as the one Big Break. There’s ALWAYS going to be another — just as long as you hang in there and don’t let yourself get dragged out of the game by your own disappointment. As Richard Walter says, “Writers don’t fail. They quit.”

I refuse to quit. And damn it, so should you!

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2 Comments on “How To Option a Screenplay in Only Four Years”

  1. […] ALWAYS ANOTHER CHANCE.  Think you blew your big break?  Relax — there’s always another opportunity if you stick with it.  Just take a look at what went wrong, and try not to make the same mistake(s) […]

  2. Karl Says:

    I’ve released 4 screenplays globaly as books. Even written a book in how I did it. ‘Screenplay Publishing’ by Karl Smith. I’m figuring if the sales of the book warrants attention then maybe the studio(s) will come looking for me.

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