Optioning A Screenplay by Producer Mark Heidelberger

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Film Courage: Have you ever optioned or bought a screenplay?

Mark Heidelberger, producer:  I have optioned and bought screenplays, yeah under Treasure Entertainment. Before I went freelance we used to all the time and a lot of them came from our clients as well.

Film Courage: Can you take us through the process?

Mark: So in terms of Treasure Entertainment when we would, part of what I liked about managing clients is that you had an in-house stable of talent that you could draw from. If we had identified something in the market, an opportunity, for some reason we wanted to do a certain type of picture, I had clients in-house I said Hey, what about one of these ideas? Because this is something that we’re thinking about doing and we can develop this with you and get it to a point where it’s strong, maybe we’ll option it from you guys? We will buy it.

Not to say that we didn’t shop around but it kind of allowed us to get exactly what we wanted, working with the writer and then getting it to the Okay, this is what we want, okay we’ll option it now. Instead of scouring the marketplace trying to find that exact kind of thing we wanted.

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“Once we identified a strong project, either something that we came across or something that we had a client create with our help, the optioning process was pretty simple.”

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Watch the video interview on Youtube here

But once we identified a strong project, either something that we came across or something that we had a client create with our help, the optioning process was pretty simple. I mean a lot of time we would just do a one year option with a one year renewal period. And whatever sort of modicum depending on the size of the film being optioned can be. We can pay anything from a $1.00 if they’re a real development writer and they’re like Look I just want to get it out there. And it’s like Let’s just see if we can get this thing out there. We’re putting our sweat equity into it, so it might just be a $1.00…you have to have something called consideration. There has to be something from this side going to this side to make it legal (even if that’s a $1.00). Here’s a $1.00, here is your script.

And an option is just basically saying you can’t sell it to anyone else during this period. We have the exclusive right to shop it or set it up or buy it and if we exercise the option here we’ll give you $10,000, $20,000 whatever the amount is and then the option is exercised, so it gives us the option to buy it exclusively for that period.

Or we might option things up to $1,000 bucks or $2,000 bucks. I mean it just depended on the size of the project. If it was all indie stuff, I mean they weren’t getting $10,000 options but you know $500 or whatever it is and then that applies against the purchase price. So if you option something for $500 and you’re going to buy the screenplay for $20,000, that $500 is to be applied against the $20,000 so you pay the $19,500 is you decide to buy it. Although those deals can be structure however you want.

So that’s kind of how we approached it was Hey, in house talent, awesome! And because we were their managers and they saw all the sweat equity we were putting in trying to get their career off the ground and the project, a lot of times we could option the script for a lot less than if we had just found it and they didn’t know us Well, I want $3,000 for this. We had already built this relationship and so it was a good system. It worked for us.

Film Courage: What about life story rights?

Mark: Yeah, I’m working on a project right now called WALKING ON PALMETTOS with writer Jim Christell and Ed Asner (like a screen legend), good ole’ Ed. And the story is based on a real life person (Myles Richards) who is very actively involved in the project as well (he’s an executive producer) and he had met Jim many years ago through a mutual friend and Jim found this guy’s story so interesting. He sat down and he interviewed him with a tape recorder for hours, I mean maybe a couple of days worth but he was like Wow, this guy’s story is so interesting. And decided that wow, this is the kind of story that would make…I think he first decided on a TV show but then he decided to make it into a script (a feature script) and I got involved when Jim came to me and asked me to do a budget. And it’s a fairly large picture I would say, it’s almost maybe studio mid-level kind of budget.

And I did the budget and Jim was very happy with the work and asked me if I would come on as a producer and work with him on it and I came on board and I asked him Do you have Myles’ life rights? This guy Myles is extraordinary human being. He was actually a Marijuana smuggler and had started when he was like 21 or something. He smuggled his first batch of Marijuana from Jamaica. He was working on The Playboy, his father ran the construction company that was building the Playboy club and he went there for the summer to work on it and that’s where he got involved in Marijuana. He started smuggling it and his first load when he was like 21 he made a quarter of a million dollars, this is in the 60’s!

Film Courage: Oh, wow.

Mark: Right, so the thing about Myles was he never did a load the same way twice. He always, there was always some innovative way and the story goes into a couple of these (so many different ways) but he sank a ship off of the coast of Florida (on purpose) loaded with water-sealed bags of Marijuana, filed for a permit to do a salvage operation, so the Coast Guard got to know him and they are salvaging, bringing up parts of the boat with Marijuana in it and the Coast Guard is right there and they had no idea. I mean he came with these ingenious…so it took the DEA 15 years to even know who he was and another 5 years to catch him. And it’s very much CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, GOODFELLAS (tonally) like the likable criminal that you follow over…WOLF OF WALL STREET that you follow them over 20 years of their life, that kind of arc and their comeuppance and the sort of trajectory. Miles did go to prison, he was there for 11 years, he was in solitary confinement for 4 years. He came out a very different person and started a legal business. He started a construction business and became a millionaire legally.

But it was a really interesting story and I was like Do you have Myles’ life rights for this? And he didn’t and I said Well, that’s the first thing we need to do. And so we went to Myles and at that point we had already worked with him long enough that he knew us and trusted us.

I mean I had talked to him on the phone, I had never met him personally but I talked to him on the phone. Jim had been dealing with him for years and so I had a life rights option drafted up and Myles signed off on it. I mean we had certain agreements with him that while we can take creative license, that there we certain things we wouldn’t do. Myles wanted to make sure that the smuggling was depicted realistically. He was like Look, just don’t have anyone running around with a suitcase full of a million dollars that looks like this. He’s like I know what a million dollars looks like in a suitcase of $50 dollar bills and it’s not like in any of these movies where the suitcase stacked to the brim with hundreds. That’s not what a million dollars looks like.

Just like he wanted us to stay true to a lot of the aspects even if we took creative license with say some of the FBI guys that were chasing him. His lawyers, in the script there is one main lawyer that deals with his case but he’s an amalgamation of many lawyers. In real life there were many lawyers, there wasn’t just this one guy.

Things like that were okay, but he wanted to make sure the smuggling was treated accurately and so we agreed to the things that he wanted. And so we agreed to the things that he wanted and he signed off on that life rights agreement and he really gave us creative control of the project and the ability to take the story within those bounds (within those parameters) where we wanted to.

Film Courage: And so just as an option expires, someone’s life rights expire as well and then they are free to use them with another production company?

Mark: They could. We have it so that, we have a certain term and then it automatically renews for extended periods unless one of us cancels it so as long as Myles is happy it’s going to keep renewing unless he gives us notice within 30 days of when the expiration is.

Film Courage: Fascinating and when does that comes out?

Mark: Well, we are working with trying to get it off the ground for the top of 2019 in terms of production so this is a project I mentioned that we were possibly looking at shooting in Australia. There are maybe some tax incentives we can take advantage of plus a lot of the picture takes place in Southern California and the Caribbean, so Australia has locations that can really play for both because the Caribbean looks very different than Southern California. You know, the Caribbean is very flat, white sands, different type of palm trees, different type of water, different type of look, the people (it’s very different). But Australia I think has options for us that can play for both so that’s something we’re looking at.

 

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Image courtesy of MarkHeidelberger.com

 

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