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Marlett & Me: Get the Money Up Front… And Don’t Get Taken

Marlett & Me: Get the Money Up Front… And Don’t Get Taken

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We (BlueRun Productions) are in the midst of receiving offers for one of our top projects. The offers have an array of approaches and terms. The key is to have 20/20 long-range vision. Gotta know what’s around the next 10 bends to best decide how to proceed, which offer to take, what terms are best. But eventually it comes down to gut, and how much you like the people with whom you are going to be working.

For many of you, this applies to selling/optioning a script you’ve written. For many others it is a more fully realized project that you plan to direct. In either case, you need the producers and they need you.

I sold my first option in L.A. in 1997. I don’t recall the exact terms, but it wasn’t much. Several thousand against a mid six-figure pick-up price… for an option to develop my novel manuscript, Fortunate Son. Since then the deals have come in an array of sorts. Some options, some writing-for-hire (hire? Ha, what a joke… for free!), some hybrids and then there were the scripts that were straight out purchased. I’ve learned a lot in those deals.

A key feature on the landscape that I now insist upon is significant cash down. A century or more ago, when gambling or negotiating a sale, the men involved needed to show they were “good for it”—that they were willing to lose money to get what they wanted or to take a chance on winning the hand. The phrase “put your money on the barrel” arose from that. It is equally true today, though the barrel may be virtual.

They must put something to risk, they must have something which compels them to further pursue the project or script. Otherwise, they’re just taking your hard work off the street for 12 to 24 months, with no obligation to do anything further. It will get locked away in the dark tower of development doom. It is a cold and lifeless place. Not good.

My basic advice: Try like hell to get the producer to bring something to the table. They must put some a sum out there that they’ll lose if they don’t get started producing your work within a given number of months.

(That reminds me of when I was approached by a leading member of the Mafia—seriously—regarding him “acquiring” a script of mine. The script centered on a historical Mafia event, and he thought he could produce it best. But when he failed to have much to offer, I accused him of showing up to a gun fight with no bullets. I still can’t believe I actually said that to him. Thankfully, he laughed. Remind me to tell you the details later.)

Now producers will whine that they don’t want to lock up their cash on a deal that they aren’t sure will ever get traction. Well, tough shit. You are the creator. It is your design and writing which they are asking you to not only take off the street, but also to entrust to them to actually produce. That’s a big pile of trust they’re exacting from you. Push back. You’ve shown yours; time for them to pony up.

Perhaps most importantly: Be prepared—and able—to walk away from any deal that doesn’t feel fair. Develop a bloodhound’s nose for what seems right and for when it seems someone’s “taking advantage” of you. I know it’s tough when you really want/need that sale or that gig. But it’s more than your professional reputation on the line (the next gig down the line will hear about the terms you cut for this one). It’s also your own ego and self-esteem being jacked with. You are the artist, the creator in the equation. Never lose sight of that.

Ride on.

David Marlett is a writer and director currently producing and directing the feature film, Of Kings & Cowboys. Marlett’s desire to direct and control his own work led him to create BlueRun Productions in 2007. He’s been acting for most of his life, and is also a non-practicing (“recovering”) attorney and CPA, with 20-plus years experience consulting and managing a wide assortment of companies in industries spanning from healthcare to entertainment. The Spring 2009 issue features his latest installment of his print column, Marlett & Me, with this sister blog on MovieMaker.com.

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