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Optioning a "Life Story"

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 7/4/2011

Film options grant a producer rights over a source material, even if that is actually the events of a person's life.

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    Having an Option

    Options, as proposals to secure rights over a potential film property, do not just apply to what is conventionally thought to be a source material. Often options are taken on abstract concept, such as a toy franchise. Life stories that are not already published in a fixed medium are also up for the traditional option.

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    Filming Your Life

    The option is made by the producer with the person whose story is going to be told. This is done in the same way that an author of a book is paid for their option. The option agreement states that they are the producer, or studio as it may be, holds the right to make the film adaptation of that person’s actual life events for as long as they hold the option. Since this is an abstract concept they call these life events a “property,” and therefore the person who lived them is the owner or author of that property.

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    Option Inclusions

    From here the option works similar to other options, except where the language needs to be even more specific. In the contract the “property” needs to be defined clearly as the events of that person’s life. The document will go on to state all the rights that you want from said property, which should include things like transferring it to several media and merchandising. The option needs to give the producer exclusive control and a set price must be negotiated once the film actually heads into production. Like other options, this price will also set the annual cost of the option if it is renewed.

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    It is important to have absolute control over the property because it is unlikely anyone will finance it otherwise. This means that you need to retain the right to fictionalize, alter, or embellish certain parts for dramatic effect while still titling the film under the same blanket as this person’s “life story.” This will help protect everyone in case that the source author is upset with the final product. Errors and Omissions insurance is a good way to also add protection during this process.

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    Treat the Story With Respect

    Life stories are difficult because it often appears as though the actual experience is devalued and then transferred to a commercial medium as a commodity. Though legality does respect this ethos, you as a producer should be more concerned with telling a great story honestly and openly.