A novelist or non-fiction writer owns anything they write, whether they formally copyright it or not. If they write a novel or play, in almost all cases, no one can make them change their material upon publication. Pressure can be exerted, threats made, but authors have inalienable rights in these media to control the placement and meaning of every word they devise.
This is not so in the film and television business. Any work that is optioned, purchased or produced is considered a “work for hire”, and once a screenplay is sold, its copyright is owned by the financier, or the corporate entity that advanced the funds for the production. The creator, whoever that may really be (the writers and directors of movies will still be fighting over this one 100 years from now), doesn’t own anything in the American copyright system – he or she has traded those rights in exchange for getting the production actually made, and other compensation that’s agreed to.
In exchange for giving up those rights which playwrights and authors fought for years to obtain, successful screenwriters are lavishly compensated, by authorial standards. They did not start out this way. They usually began their careers by begging and praying for someone, anyone, to read their screenplays and maybe option one of them, even a free option.
Writers who assume they should be treated on the same level as their proven and experienced counterparts need a reality check. Few screenplays drop out of heaven and into the laps of commercially successful producers and directors. Only slightly more get formally optioned, and the writers actually paid for their rights and for further writing services.
To have a producer interested in a novice– or let’s say, unproduced– screenwriter should be a wonderful event in the writer’s professional life. The suspicion many writers have about unscrupulous producers is not without foundation; screenwriters need to register their material and copyright, if possible. The major studios and producers will generally not accept unsolicited material, meaning that scripts only come to them from an agent. This is a double-edged sword for a writer: an agent will protect the writer’s material but one must first get an agent to represent them! Not an easy feat. The studios work with agents for a multitude of reasons: the agent has vetted the material, their interaction protects the parties (to a certain extent) and the agent is a major roadblock for the thousands of writers wanting direct access to the studios and major producers. Additionally, agents from a large firm will often “package” a movie by putting together a director and/or actors that they also represent for the project.
The Bottom Line
A screenwriter should always be paid something as an option against the purchase price for their material, usually for a minimum period of one year, with annual extensions unless either party objects. This can be as little as $1 (the symbolic payment, which usually carries a psychic cost) or as much as the free market will bear (the bidding wars that agents, managers and screenwriters dream of).
A producer needs a formal letter signed by both writer and producer that agrees to the terms and conditions of their partnership on the project, as specific as possible. A lawyer is best to execute this document, although two intelligent and reasonable people can also come up with a good version on their own. Under those circumstances, it’s best to have a witness also sign the agreement.
Other issues such as the writer’s exclusivity to the project in question, the producer’s right to terminate the writer’s services and hire a new writer, and such important minutiae of delivery dates, minimum and maximum number of pages and anticipated MPAA rating, also need to be addressed in any such agreement.
The money or other compensation that passes hands is unique to each deal. But honesty and forthrightness are not only the best policy: they are essential in building a reputation that will encourage future trust between writer and producer. Most writers are talking to their peers, and producers do not want to be the subject of those conversations.