questionmarkI’m a first time writer in the UK, who is in the process of having an original movie script picked up by a start-up production company. Everyone who has read the script loves it and they all say it’s wide open for a sequel or maybe even a spin-off TV series.

I’m obviously thrilled to have the script picked up, but I was wondering of there is a way I can legally retain the rights to the characters so I can write a sequel at some point in the future? Because the company is a start-up they don’t have much money to spend, so I’m willing to take a much reduced payment for the script, provided I can somehow retain the rights to the characters I created.

Is the answer simply a carefully drafted contracts, to include reference to the rights reverting to me after one production?

— Andy
Derbyshire, England

Short answer: Yes.

Longer answer: In most cases, when you’re selling (or optioning) a screenplay to a production entity, they want absolutely everything, including the right to make sequels and spin-offs. Contracts will often have built-in payments for these derivative works.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

If you’re willing to take less money upfront — perhaps because the production entity can’t afford to pay you more — you can often negotiate terms that make sense for you, including holding on to some rights you’d otherwise give up.

Bottom line: You need an entertainment attorney. This isn’t standard boilerplate language, and will require significant negotiation. You want to protect yourself in case of disaster or wild success, and small glitches in the contract could cause huge problems.

Keep in mind that the buyer has a very good reason for wanting those sequel and spin-off rights. They want to be able to sell the movie to a larger buyer, and a possible franchise is worth more than a one-off movie.

Related trivia: My first spec sale, Go, was a similarly small deal with special terms, including my becoming co-producer. While there was never serious talk about a sequel, there was a TV spin-off. I wasn’t involved, but Sony TV did develop a show based on it. I think they shot a pilot — The Malloys were involved, if I recall correctly — but it never went to series.