Since the silent cinema era, Hollywood has been a huge fan of literature. It will always happen. Studio executives and producers occasionally complain that purchasing motion picture and television rights to novels is too expensive. They promise to reduce it. Don’t pay heed to this nonsense. For two simple reasons, Hollywood’s fondness for literature will endure: Second, popular novels (consider the Harry Potter series as an example) have swarms of devoted admirers (often teens and geeky adults) who will be racing to the theatre to watch the motion picture based on their cherished book. Five of the nine films nominated for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, including the winner, Argo, were based on novels. As a result, it’s certain that you, as an independent film producer, would wish to buy the motion picture and television rights to a book at some time. This essay will outline the fundamentals of a book option agreement and, perhaps, give some guidance. I don’t go through every term. For the most part, I’ll concentrate on the most important business aspects. Other legal terminology like assignment, governing law, modification, and so on can be useful, but they can all be learned quickly from a solid entertainment contract form book. This material may seem elementary to you if you are a seasoned producer. However, there are likely to be certain aspects that will be useful to both you and the rookie producer.
Motion film and television rights to a book are generally reserved for the author in the United States rather than being awarded to the publisher. This implies you’ll be negotiating with either the author or the author’s agency, assuming the author is successful. But let’s be honest. Unless you’re super-rich or super-connected, you won’t be looking for best-sellers that are highly pricey and picked up by studios. More than likely, you’ll be looking for a book that’s at least a few years old and written by an author who is well-known in his or her category but not well-known overall. We’ll pretend for this essay that you’re looking to buy the film and television rights to Joe Scribbler’s mystery novel Looking for Luigi. Scribbler is a well-known mystery writer but not a well-known author. Ten years ago, he had a television motion picture made based on one of his works. Luigi’s search is five years old. Slick Larry of William Morris Endeavor represents Scribbler (I put in a genuine agency for jokes). Of course, Slick Larry is a made-up character.)
First and foremost, you must complete your assignment! It’s critical to check the U.S. Copyright Office’s database for registrations and recorded rights transfers for the book to ensure that a) the book has a copyright registration in the author’s name; and b) there are no conflicting options, assignments, liens, or registrations for productions based on the book. This is the “chain-of-title” research you’re doing. A copyright report from a copyright search service is the best method to achieve this. However, this is a costly option. Suppose you’re like most independent producers and live off spaghetti every night. In that case, you may get a similar result by checking the U.S. Copyright Office’s online records for free, as long as the records were filed on or after January 1, 1978. This isn’t a perfect method. There are only recorded options and rights transfers indicated.
On the other hand, the studios and the most experienced producers will have documented such possibilities and transfers. There should be no existing or competing choices, other transfers of the rights you seek to buy, liens, or productions you come across. Do not proceed if you discover current or competing options, other transfers of the rights you intend to purchase liens or productions.
If you’re looking for a book that’s been out for a while, you might be able to locate a previous selection recorded. In this scenario, you should confirm with the agent that the option has expired and was never exercised and request redacted (money terms removed) copies of previous agreements indicating the option durations and dates. Based on the book, you must also establish that there are no rights assignments or productions by that former production business (or its assignees). Although the author will be required to guarantee that the rights are clear, mistakes might happen, and you don’t want to buy a lawsuit!
You’ll also need to get a Publisher’s Release from Scribbler’s publishers if the chain of title is clear. This is a simple form that validates that the publishers do not own or control any of the rights you are attempting to obtain. You should make receiving this paperwork a condition antecedent to fulfilling your option agreement responsibilities. However, it is practically seldom an issue.