The Contract And The Writer
As a writer, you will encounter many different types of contract during the course of your career. It pays to have a basic knowledge of such contracts, so that you can be prepared and act with an informed opinion. The world of movies is the world of business and ignorance is never rewarded here.
A good starting point is the Writer's Guild Minimum Basic Agreement, which forms the groundwork of most contracts and outlines the basic deal terms that you can and should expect to see. The idea is to try and negotiate something better and use this as a springboard to the contract of your dreams. Identify where your priorities lie so that you know which points are and are not negotiable.
Here are the four basic contracts that you will most likely encounter:
Option Agreement - Spec Script
An option gives a producer the right to shop your screenplay around to other interested parties for a set amount of time, for which they will pay you a set fee, ranging anywhere from $1 to a few thousand dollars. For example, you might sign an option deal for twelve months for $1,000. At the end of twelve months, if there has been no purchase and you do not wish to renew the option, then the agreement ends and you keep the $1,000 option fee. The agreement will spell out not only the terms of the option, but also the final purchase price and other basic terms, so be careful what you sign and that you will be happy with the terms further down the road.
An option agreement is necessary to a producer, so that they don't spend a large amount of time setting up your project with Studio A, only to discover that another producer has just sold it to Studio B. It's important you trust your option holder has the ability and necessary contacts to set your project up, because it will be off limits to anyone else until the option period has expired.
Purchase Contract - Spec Script
This is the actual sale of your screenplay and the purchaser will buy all the rights to your screenplay outright, plus there is often additional compensation if your screenplay is actually produced as a movie. If a purchase contracts comes your way, you should immediately seek a professional legal opinion and review all documentation carefully.
An oral agreement, allows a producer to negotiate a deal around your screenplay. Unlike an option agreement, nothing is signed and no money changes hands - however - this doesn't mean that nothing need be on paper. It is a good idea to follow any meetings or phone calls, where terms are discussed, with letters, faxes or e-mails, so that you have a coherent paper trail and both sides know what is and isn't acceptable for the future development of your screenplay.
Oral contracts may lead absolutely nowhere, but will allow you to establish relationships and open possible avenues for all future projects.
Deal Memo - Writing Assignment
Writing assignments can be the bread and butter for a writer. The trick is that you'll need to have at least one produced screenplay under your belt, in order to be considered for such work. This speaks less of actual talent and more of an easy sell to the investor. This is not a hard and fast rule and many an agent will use a writer's screenplay to shop them around for writing assignment work, based on its strength.
Writing assignments cover such work as re-writes and punch up work on someone else's opus. A deal memo will outline the specifics concerning what you will write, by when and for how much compensation. There is partial payment up front, with the remainder upon completion and delivery. Although deal memo's don't need lengthy negotiation, it always pays to have a legal pair of eyes look over the details, but keep it short and sweet and let the work roll in.
Good luck with your screenwriting career!