What Contracts Do Screenwriters Sign?

At some point in your career, you will be faced with a screenwriting contract

There are generally four types of screenwriting contracts: most of the time, it will be an option agreement, a shopping deal, an open writing assignment, or a submission release form.

But what are these exactly and how should you negotiate these deals? 

This article will take a look at every deal and give you ways to navigate them, even without representation.

1. Option Agreement

When you write a script and someone wants to buy the rights, they will offer you an option agreement. It’s a contract that is sometimes called a purchase agreement.

Options can be used to acquire rights for books, comics, or any other form of art. 

If you write a script based on an existing book, you will want to get the rights to that book, and that means signing an option with the author of the book as well.

But if you have an original script, there will still be production companies that will want to acquire the rights to the script or acquire the rights to the concept.

That’s when an option agreement comes into play.

Option screenplays come with an amount negotiated in the front end and an amount negotiated in the back end. It gives the production company who signs the option agreement with you the rights to your script (and often even concept) for a given time, exclusively.

That means that for the time being, you cannot take your script to anyone else without their approval. And for that given time, you do not own rights on that project anymore, they do as stated in the contract.

Often the option price is quite low (front-end payment), but the back-end payment can be negotiated a lot higher. 

During the option time which can be between one year to two years, the production company will try to get the script made with their connections. 

The option agreement specifies all the terms of what happens in case the movie gets made, so you want to make sure you have negotiated credits, back-end payment, renewal, and more.

If the production company fails to get the project made, they can renew the option for an agreed price, or they can let the option run out, in which case all the rights revert back to the writer. 

Options are great in the sense that someone will be out there trying to get your script made.

Now, the downside is that you will lose the rights for that given time, which will block you in case other opportunities arise that this producer does not want to follow. You will become dependent on this production company for a given time.

Option agreements are not easy to get out of either since they’re legally heavy.

It’s common for producers to negotiate low payments in the front end and high amounts in the back end.

The reason is that they’ll option several screenplays at the same time for small amounts. 

For you, as a writer, it feels like this is launching your career, but in reality, they go around pitching many screenplays hoping one of them will stick. It’s low risk for them, since they acquire the rights for a small fee, usually. 

Option agreements are worth it, especially with bigger production companies. 

But the bottom line is, when you’re presented with an option agreement, make sure you get something upfront for giving them all rights to your script. Your creation and idea have value, remember that and show them that. 

Additionally, that upfront money will make you feel better when you find yourself having to make several (unpaid) rewrites during the option agreement.

2. The Shopping Agreement

Shopping agreements are often offered as alternatives to option agreements. 

Shopping agreements are a lot less heavy legally. They are less long in time, and while you don’t usually make money on a shopping agreement, you keep all the rights to your work.

When you sign this agreement, you basically give the right to a producer to “shop” your script around, meaning looking for somewhere to sell the script/make the script. 

You allow them to take the script to their partners and anywhere else they wish to go to.

Again, for a shopping agreement, no money is negotiated upfront. That’s a big difference with the option agreement that requires a payment (even a $1 symbolic payment which we’ve seen happen – but don’t fall for that trap)

But the shopping agreement gives you a lot more freedom since you stay the owner of the work.

Additionally, if a third party is interested in buying the script, the producer and the writer are both entering independent contracts with the buyer, allowing more room for negotiation

The contract given to the writer will have to do with the rights and the sale of the script and concept. The contract given to the producer will have to do with credit and attachment since they connected the buyer and the writer.

The lenght of a shopping agreement tends to last anywhere between six months and one year.

The risk might be that the producer doesn’t try to push the project as hard as they would with an option, since they haven’t put any money into it. 

But it gives the writer a lot more freedom and if you’re unhappy with your production company, a shopping agreement is a lot easier to break than an option agreement.

3. Open Writing Assignment

An open writing assignment is a contract offered to a writer to write or rewrite a project that belongs to a producer or a studio.

It’s rare for writers to sell an original script or to sell a pitch, that’s why writers and their representation spend a lot of time looking for open writing assignments (OWAs).

The type of work needed can go anywhere from outlining, writing, rewriting, polishing a script, adapting a book into a script, and more. 

The part that is different when it comes to the process prior to the signature of an open writing assignment, is that you’re not the only writer going up for the position. 

That basically means that other writers are trying to get that same gig. Most of the time, you will get to pitch your take on the story or write a one-pager showing how you would develop this story.

Preparing for an open writing assignment can take a lot of time and is usually unpaid, but it is extremely rewarding since it is one of the most effective ways to establish yourself as a working writer.

Once you successfully do one writing assignment, you will most likely get offered many more since you will be going on a list of vetted writers for OWAs.

Open writing assignments can vary in contract length since it greatly depends on what you will be asked to do, but it’s a great way to make great money writing and become more established as a writer.

An open writing assignment comes after the studio or producer already acquired the rights to the project. That means they’re now in the development phase of the said project and that means, paychecks that are a lot nicer than with the contracts discussed prior.

4. Submission Release Form

It seems like it’s worth mentioning submission forms as well, although this type of contract is very different from the other contracts we have mentioned here.

A submission release form is basically a document that a producer will want you to sign to waive any right to sue if there’s copyright infringement.

An example would be, if you query a producer and don’t have representation, they might accept to read your script if you sign a submission release form, which basically is you agree not to sue if the producer makes a similar movie without you.

This fear of being sued for similar ideas is why producers don’t read scripts from unrepresented writers. If your script goes through your manager, you will not be asked to sign any forms, but if a producer ever accepts to read your script, they might ask you to sign this form to simply be on the safe side.

Remember that this contract doesn’t guarantee anything. It’s not a work contract. It’s simply a contract that stipulates that you will not sue.

It can feel scary to sign such contracts, but if you sign one with a well-known production company, you’re generally okay since their reputation means a lot to them and they don’t want to be accused of stealing. 

Having a script read by an established production company is a huge asset and can lead to you submitting other scripts in the future since they will become part of your network.

Don’t worry too much about an established company stealing your idea. A new writer would be considered cheap for them so they might as well make you sign an option or a shopping deal if they really love your script. That’s cheaper in the long run than stealing from you. 

With this article we have looked at the most common screenwriting contracts and why each has pros and cons. 

You are now more prepared to take that meeting and know exactly what you’re talking about. 

If you can, it’s always good to discuss with an entertainment lawyer before you sign a contract, since there can be many clauses that you might not be aware of without having experience with said contract.

Hoping you land that million-dollar deal soon!

Article by Lena Murisier

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