A Twitter Thread on Shopping Agreements

John Scalzi

Archived here for posterity.

1. Team Scalzi was approached today with a query about a “shopping agreement” for one of my properties. A “shopping agreement” is basically where a film/TV producer asks permission to pitch a work in a room without having paid an option up front…

2. … with the idea being that if they get a studio/streamer/network/etc excited about it, they can quickly put together a package and then an option would follow after. And if not, well, then… not.

So, I'm not a fan of shopping agreements, and let me tell you why.

3. (Disclaimer: What follows is a disquisition about a first world problem told from the perspective of someone with a non-trivial amount of privilege, etc BUT which I still think will be useful to other writers and such. Mileage may vary, and all that. We good? Okay then.)

4. The first reason I’m not a fan of shopping agreements is — no surprise — there is no money! Someone is asking for all the benefit of a film/TV option without paying for it, basically by promising they can get the work a hearing in a room. Well, that’s what an option is FOR.

5. Now, not every producer is rolling around in cash; the mechanics of entertainment production often make the ambitious illiquid. Which I understand and can sympathize with, but regardless, options are table stakes for this game. Writers need to eat, too. And pay bills, etc.

6. There’s a downward pressure on what writers are being offered for options ANYWAY; it does none of us any good to let the bar get down to zero. And also, a producer with an option has skin in the game. They’re incentivized to get a return on the investment. That’s important.

7. Another reason I’m not a fan, related to the first, is that it sets a bad example, and people like me accepting a shopping agreement can be used as a tool against other writers who need money more than we do. If producers say “well, bestsellers give us shopping agreements…”

8. …then we make it harder for other authors who aren’t necessarily bestsellers, and who have bills to pay and mouths to feed. The authors who aren’t financially vulnerable should set a standard for those who might be vulnerable. That means payment for options as a baseline.

9. (“But what about Stephen King and his $1 options?” Those are for film students, for one, but more generally, you’ll find exceptions made for altruism/friendship/quirks. I’m talking about a general business practice. Generally: Encourage writers being paid.)

10. Here’s another reason, as it relates to me: Me offering a shopping agreement isn’t fair to the producers, etc who have paid me options for my work. *They* jumped through the financial hoop and made a financial commitment to me and my work. It would be kind of a dick move…

11. … to turn around and offer someone else for free the thing they paid cash money for. It’s not nice to burn your business partners like that, especially if you want to do equitable business with them in the future, and encourage them to do likewise with others.

12. A final reason for me personally (or the final one I’ll relate here): I don’t need a middleman. If I want a title of mine shopped around LA without being paid for it, I can just have my manager set up meetings. I’ve sold options in the room before. I know how to do it!

13. Will a producer with a more extensive track record than me have a better chance of doing that? Possibly! But honestly, if something’s pitched somewhere and the answer is “no,” that’s it for a while on that. If anyone’s gonna burn a property of mine for free, it’s gonna be me.

14. At the end of the day a shopping agreement is very-low-to-no risk for the would-be producer, and somewhat high risk for the property originator, with no immediate (and probably no later) financial benefit. You’re being offered sizzle but you probably won’t taste the steak.

15. Again, I have a privileged position, so you have to think on the cost and benefit to yourself (and, maybe, to others) when someone comes along offering a shopping agreement. I do think, however, that if an idea is good enough to be pitched, it’s good enough to be optioned.

16. That’s it; that’s the thread. As always with one of these threads, here is a picture of a cat to send you off. Smudge definitely wants me to get paid, because my shopping agreement with him includes tuna.

/end

Originally tweeted by John Scalzi (@scalzi) on July 27, 2021.

28 Comments on “A Twitter Thread on Shopping Agreements”

  1. I didn’t know these were a thing and they strike me as a terrible idea. Like, “I want the benefit of being able to pitch your work without having any skin in the game myself.” Meh. No thank you.

  2. Thank you for the thread, Scalzi – there’s enough downward pressure on authors without us making it worse on ourselves.

    That said. As someone not from the first world, I really hate it when people use the term ‘first world problems’. I promise you us po’ brown folk have petty, frivolous concerns too, and ‘first world problems’ is an othering, ignorant and not a little racist sore on an otherwise excellent thread.

    (https://www.dailydot.com/unclick/first-world-problems/ if you want to read an article that does a better job explaining than this comment.)

  3. I agree with you. Don’ t let anyone pitch you without a signed agreement. It never works. Can’t wait for your new book.

  4. Like, Maresca, I had no idea these were a thing. Always learning something here.

    On another note regarding Smudge:

    Saw a sticker on the back of an SUV awhile back. It was a cross and the word “unashamed.”

    Since we give our cats, Bubba and Squeak, tuna from a can on Sundays, I read the sticker as “Tuna shamed,” as in what happens when I don’t give them their tuna. My wife never forgets.

  5. This makes me think of “spec work” in the design field. “Hey, can you take the time to whip up a few designs for a project and then I’ll pick from a bunch of different designers and then pay just the one I pick”. It’s gross and frowned upon for a lot of the similar reasons you lay out here.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speculative_work

  6. Way back when in the 1990s, when I was trying to sell my own movie scripts, one of the things on my Scriptwriter Career Wishlist was to reach a point where I’d be able to adapt some other works I liked into scripts.

    (Some of those dream projects were from public domain works like Bulwer-Lytton’s Last of the Barons or Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of An Anarchist. But some were from living writers like, at that time, Roger Zelazny.)

    Never quite got to that point. (I was starting to get a few expressions of interest and meetings, but no money, and then the Toxic Boss From Hell at my dayjob sent me to the ICU and my scriptwriting became collateral damage when the antidepressants needed to cope with the aftermath of that almost totally killed the writing urge for years.)

    But if I had, and I’d wanted to develop and shop someone else’s work for movies or tv, it would never have even occurred to me to try and do it for free. (My personal finances were pretty tight back then, but I figured I could scrape together, oh, $500 for a 6-month option, then work like hell to get some action going on it in that time period.)

    (I did run into that f’in “free rewrite” thing so common in Hollywood a few times, which is very similar to the “shopping agreement” thing you discuss here.)

  7. Thanks for this informative post. Like other commenters, I’m amazed “Shopping Agreements” exist at all. The cost of an option is usually a very small proportion of the cost of a movie or TV production. And tuna is expensive!

  8. It appears from his cranky look, even Smudge agrees with your explanation. He has a vested interest in you producing cat nummies, so anything that reduces that chance gets a paws down from him.

  9. I’m curious – what prevents this from happening even without the shopping agreement? I’m imagining a conversation like this:

    Producer A: “Hey, there’s this Scalzi book that would make a great show. You should fund me to make it for you.”
    Studio B: “Sounds like a good idea. Do you want to talk to his agent, or should we?”

    .. and I’m not seeing why either A or B needs your permission to have this conversation.

  10. timeliebe – Central NY – Dreaded Spouse-Creature to bestselling fantasy author Tamora Pierce (SONG OF THE LIONESS, THE CIRCLE OPENS, BEKA COOPER: A TORTALL LEGEND series), a co-author of TORTALL: A SPY'S GUIDE, Co-author with Tamora Pierce of Marvel's WHITE TIGER: A HERO'S OBSESSION for Marvel Comics. Contributing Editor for VIDEO Magazine during the 1990s, Columnist for C/Net 1999 - 2002.
    Timothy Liebe

    Nathan Williams – Well, because what prevents the studio from optioning the property and giving it to someone else? Which happens a lot in movies….

    Or comics, as Tammy and I found out to our horror! Tammy was offered WHITE TIGER as a six-part limited-run series, and brought me in as co-writer… with neither of us knowing that the people who created the character of Angela del Toro as White Tiger, Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming, had been told they’d get first crack at her as a solo title!

    This resulted in a great deal of bad blood between us, the creators and their fans, mostly with Tammy getting blamed for having “stolen” their character. Obviously, had she known about this she’d have turned it down – Tammy’s very particular about taking somebody else’s content and profiting from it without permission and a cut of the pie, it having happened to us as well.

  11. timeliebe – Central NY – Dreaded Spouse-Creature to bestselling fantasy author Tamora Pierce (SONG OF THE LIONESS, THE CIRCLE OPENS, BEKA COOPER: A TORTALL LEGEND series), a co-author of TORTALL: A SPY'S GUIDE, Co-author with Tamora Pierce of Marvel's WHITE TIGER: A HERO'S OBSESSION for Marvel Comics. Contributing Editor for VIDEO Magazine during the 1990s, Columnist for C/Net 1999 - 2002.
    Timothy Liebe

    Sir Smudington is right to be vexed – “Shopping Agreements” should more properly be called “total dick move by producer”.

    They should know at the very least he gets his tuna, come what may….

  12. Seems a bit like “the dog ate my homework” method of working – pitch a whole bunch of stuff against the wall, see what sticks, then run around afterwards trying to make it work. And with zero investment from the “producers” to begin with, which does make you wonder about their commitment to the property, beyond making a quick buck with no investment.

    Serve them right if one of the pitchees would go “Great idea!” then option the rights out from under them.

    If they’re that half-assed to begin with, what are they like throughout the process?

    I think the default “F you, pay me” is the correct response!

  13. I came here with the same question as Nathan Williams.

    Of course if a producer has an exclusive option in hand I can see how they’d be more likely to be taken seriously (because the studio knows the producer has already agreed to some terms with the author, and also that they will need to go with that producer if they want to turn that story into a movie).

    But if they don’t have an option, and nobody has one, what’s to stop a studio and producer from talking about making a movie out of a book, and seeking agreement from the author after they have decided amongst themselves that they’d like to make the movie?

  14. “But if they don’t have an option, and nobody has one, what’s to stop a studio and producer from talking about making a movie out of a book, and seeking agreement from the author after they have decided amongst themselves that they’d like to make the movie?”

    Nothing at all. And people talk about stuff they’d like to make all the time. But they don’t get into much detail without having some sort of hold on the rights. And if they’re serious, they may not talk about it much because they don’t want anyone else thinking, “Yeah, I’d like to do that but with someone else.”

    Because the producer doesn’t want to do the work of assembling a pitch on how they’d approach the material and approaching studios and doing the work, they risk finding out that after they’ve put in time and effort, the rights are under option to someone else (or have been purchased), so they have to go back to the studio and say, “Sorry, wasted your time.”

    The next time they contact that studio, the studio might be all, “Nah, you’re a guy that wastes our time.”

    So casual conversation like, “Man, I’d love to do a series adapting THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER” is one thing, but figuring out how many episodes and what angle you’d take and trying to get a network interested isn’t something you do before making sure the Dunsany Estate is up for partnering with you on this.

    The argument in favor of shopping agreements is that if you make an option deal with Producer X, you’re spelling out all the purchase details in the option agreement (that’s what they’re buying, the option to purchase the rights on such-and-such terms), and that deal may be good, may not, it’s very speculative. With a shopping agreement, you’re partnering up with a producer, but you haven’t made any purchase agreement, so if that producer gets a network or studio interested, you then negotiate with people who have actual money, and are willing to put it into developing your property. So you may not get any offers, but if you do you have more leverage.

    Plus, not all shopping agreements are unpaid. Sometimes you make a deal for an exclusive shopping period — the producer pays you X dollars for a six-month exclusive shopping deal, and that way if it goes nowhere, you at least got the X dollars, but if they hook someone you’re in position to make a better deal than if you’d optioned the property to the producer rather than optioning/selling it to the network or studio.

    And there are other wrinkles, like if you really want to work with Director X, but you option the rights to a studio, then you don’t have much leverage to say “I want Director X,” but if you partner up with Director X or their producer friend Producer Y, then you can go out to studios with a package of your book and Director X and find a place that thinks the approach the two of you want is perfect. You can do that if Director X or Producer Y options it, too, but they may not have money to devote to that, plus maybe you get a better deal if you’re talking money with the studio at the next step, as above.

    It’s all a matter of comfort levels, and I wouldn’t argue in favor of shopping agreements over options — I like money up front too — but different people will want to emphasize different things. If you want the most control, you hang on to the rights until as late in the process as you can. If you want money, you may be better off doing only options and then hoping the process is long and drawn out and ultimately fails, so you can get paid for multiple rounds of the option and then start afresh with the next suitor, so option money just keeps coming in.

    I had a property that got optioned and then re-optioned and then re-optioned, and then the studio said, “Look, it’s taking a long time to sell this, but we’re pretty sure we’re going to sell it, so we’re going to just exercise the option and purchase the rights, and stop having to worry about the clock.” That was nice, too.

    Different agents, managers and writers are going to have different thoughts on how to go, even with different projects.

  15. John, for a second I imagined a film crew in your basement room.

    Yes, I’ve always taken it for granted that options mean pay the writer. Suddenly I hear Harlan Ellison’s voice, “Pay the Writer!”

    John, I like how you have a decency in this. I won’t guess the name, but I figuratively remember hearing, a hundred years ago in France, a publisher negotiating with a famous writer, “But (blank, a well known writer) takes a low fee.”

    “Blank is wrong! What about writers who are hungry!”

  16. I, too, had never heard of a shopping agreement. I am a reader, not a writer or would-be writer, and I want writers to make money. I would prefer that all my current and future favorite writers didn’t need a day job, bit could afford to spend all day writing more books for me to read. (By afford, I mean that they would have enough money from writing to live in a nice house, drive a nice car, and in general,live the American Dream)

  17. I’m with you 100%. If someone is unwilling to take a stake in you financially to bid on or promote your property, fuck off!

  18. Just two comments:

    Point 13 is the critical one. And the answer, since Netflix and Amazon (and Apple+ and so on) came on the scene, is “No discernable difference.” There’s been a huge shift in how the conversations take place since 2012 or so; they’re no longer institution-to-institution as much as person-to-person. And the persons who have the capability to either get a film made or convince others that they can get a film made…

    …run into the detailed answer to Nathan’s question. Everybody in H’wood is (rightly) afraid of a Desny claim — the specialized California cause of action for “you stole my idea after it was presented to you, you made an audiovisual production out of it, and you didn’t pay me.” (There are a few quirks to it, but it’s not a copyright-infringement claim.) That’s why you can’t get a production company, or legitimate producer, to look at your “idea” without a whole bunch of paperwork first… which the so-called “shopping agreement” is supposed to satisfy.

  19. How does this compare to a prior, contractual arrangement under which the person holding an option has paid something for the privilege, and has to pay a lot more if they actually get a chance to use that option.?

  20. To Kurt’s point: I remember seeing Fred Saberhagen at a local convention once (Philcon, to be specific). He was a fun speaker, but one thing he mentioned was that a significant income boost for him had been people not making movies out of his books. Saberhagen wrote some really enjoyable novels around Dracula (The Dracula Tapes, An Old Friend of the Family, The Holmes/Dracula Files, etc.). Those books got optioned over and over again by production companies that wanted to make films with Dracula who wanted to avoid having an adaption of Saberhagen’s books as competition or have claims on infringement from them. Paying a $20-50,000 option for a couple of years to avoid that was preferable to them, as I understood what he was saying.

  21. Sometimes a thing seems perfectly reasonable until a very good writer and explainer explains why it isn’t, and this is one of those things and you are that incredibly good writer and explainer.

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