CRAIG SPECTOR is best known as an author and editor with eleven books under his belt (another on the way tentatively titled Turnaround) and millions of copies sold. His meteoric rise to fame in horror circles came mostly on the back of a series of novels that he co-wrote with John Skipp in the late 1980's. The two also edited a couple of zombie anthologies way before the zombie craze took hold (Book of the Dead - 1990 and Still Dead - 1992). That's right, they were zombie before zombie was cool. Along with some solo novels he has also collaborated with other authors since then, most recently with author Whitley Strieber on the graphic novel The Nye Incidents.
A veteran of several option deals and a produced screenwriter he is the perfect candidate to provide some perspective on the process of options and how it has changed over the years. Always candid, Craig was not shy about his viewpoint. Buckle your seatbelt. It's going to be a bumpy and very honest ride.
"Plainly put," he says, "the difference is money. If someone is buying your script they're purchasing the rights, but if it's an option, it's like renting with the possibility of buying later, should all go well. An option takes your property off the market for X-amount of time, and the terms are agreed upon in advance of the sale. Buying a script outright, they're paying you up front. It should be noted, this doesn't happen very often these days - everyone wants to hold out as long as possible until they think it's a sure thing."
So offers come flying in if you are an award-winning bestselling author, right? Sit back in your easy chair and wait for the mailman to bring checks and throw lavish Hollywood style parties, right? Even at that point, Spector claims it isn't quite so easy.
"I have more books not optioned than optioned; some of my titles have been optioned more than once, others never have. There's no way to know why, definitively. Personally, I think they'd all make good – if not great – movies, though some probably scream 'Movie!!' a bit louder than others. But so many forces have to align – right idea, story, producer or star or director, right timing, right representation… – and then there's luck.
"Think of it like covering your book or script in metal and dragging it through a thunderstorm, wondering if lightning will strike."
As has been noted in columns past, most authors do not normally get to work on the screenplays for their own optioned novels.
"It's important to remember that once you sign you are really giving up control of your property for the duration of the option...and if they exercise the option and buy it, well, you've given up control of it forever. You're like the birth parent giving up your kid for adoption - it might be your baby but once you sign, it's their movie. In most cases they're paying you to go away, but even if they want you to stick around, it's their movie. You're lucky if you get visitation."
But most writers will gladly sell their baby. The more babies they sell the more offers that might come their way. So is there anything writers can do to improve their odds and give them an edge over the writer in the next bungalow?
"If you've got good representation that's a major plus, you need someone looking out for you who has their finger on the proverbial pulse of what's happening right now, since it changes constantly. Other than that, the only thing you as a writer can really do is write the best thing you possibly can, and understand that people option a property (or make a movie) for one reason: they smell money. Passion projects and labors of love notwithstanding, the reason anyone is going to pay you money for your property is because they smell more.
"Flip the whorish commerce impulse back to art and it still applies: a movie that 'real' people – i.e., movie goers, people not in 'the industry,' your audience – will want to see is a movie that can sell. And no one in the history of movies ever bought a ticket or rented a DVD or streamed something because it fattened the bottom line of the studio to do so. I think Hollywood forgets that a lot, or wishes it wasn't so."
Craig has spent many years writing and optioning. He has learned many things over time and I wanted to wrap up our interview with the revelations of optioning ala Spector.
"Okay, saving my hard truth for last – optioning ain't what it used to be. In the new normal of Hollywood, the days of major five and six figure deals are dwindling, and if you land an option you're lucky to get a fraction of that, if anything at all. That's right - it's increasingly common for a producer to want a free option on your material, so they can 'run it around the block' and try to put all the pieces of a successful – sold – movie in place before you ever see a dime. Oh, and they want longer to do it, too – what used to be a six month option period is commonly twelve to eighteen months these days. I've had meetings with producers expressing their passion for the material in question where after a lunch like that I'd be waiting for the offer, only to discover that the lunch effectively was the offer. Sometimes they even skip the lunch, just coffee.
"But it all comes down to metrics, the comfort zone, the elements of the package now – script, producer, director, stars. Everyone is running scared, and creative decisions are made by accountants for the benefit of shareholders... and you, the creator, take pretty much all the risk. As never before it's all about financing and distribution, and if someone can use your material and someone else's money – and it all works, they win – well, what's not to like about that? For them, that is.
"Are there any easy answers? Alas, no. This was never easy, but in many ways for the creative person it's harder now than ever before. But as a creator, you need to educate and armor yourself as best you can - example, if you don't know what ROI is, now would be a good time to learn.
"Apart from that - write the most kickass this-has-GOT-to-be-a-movie story you can, and take it from there. It's common parlance that a script is a blueprint or diagram, which is ultimately a disservice to its true purpose. To me, a book or script that yearns to be a movie is a catalytic inspirational incendiary device: it exists to light peoples' imaginations on fire.
"Do that, and you've got a shot."
Craig Spector's website can be found at www.craigspector.com
Del Howison is a journalist, writer and Bram Stoker Award-winning editor. He is also the co-founder and owner of Dark Delicacies "The Home of Horror" in Burbank, CA. He can be reached at Del@darkdel.com. If you have any information on the optioning of horror books he would love to hear from you.