Reader’s question to Dr. Film: I have a brilliant idea for a TV thriller. But I don’t have the time to write a screenplay. How do I sell my idea without having it stolen? And what do I have to do so that I can continue to have a say after the idea is sold?
Ideas are not everything. But without the right idea nothing works in the entertainment business. This applies to television as well as to cinema and series. Is it possible to sell an idea in the film business and earn money with it? If so, how do you do it?
What you need to know
- To sell a film idea successfully, you first have to do homework: Find out who as a TV station or production company is implementing similar ideas.
- The TV industry works (almost without exception) only with experienced idea suppliers. Exceptions prove the rule.
- You can only sell an idea as an exposé, treatment or screenplay.
- In order for your idea to be protected by law, it must have a certain originality and detail. An example: the idea that a man and a woman fall in love does not enjoy legal protection. Because if this were the case, no new stories could be told.
How do I sell an idea for a TV thriller or a movie?
The word “sell” already says it. To sell an idea you need a buyer. When it comes to TV, there are three possibilities, but only two options.
Less important is whether you want to write an exposé or a screenplay. However, you will get far less for a film sketch in the form of an exposé than for an elaborated film story, which is available as a treatment or film script.
Who can (theoretically) be considered as a buyer
Basically, three people are interested in an idea for a TV thriller: Screenwriters, TV production companies and TV institutions.
- But: An author will almost certainly not be interested in paying anything for your film sketch. You can’t sell him an idea. Life as a screenwriter of crime novels for television is hard. Most of the time there are only two ways as a writer in this business. You write on your own account. Or you do it on commission. If you have a writing assignment, you don’t need ideas. Those who write at their own risk do so on the basis of their own ideas and rarely have the money to buy other people’s ideas.
- The situation is different with a film company that develops material for TV stations. This is always done in close cooperation with the editorial staff of the station. But it is by no means unusual to submit a sketch of action to a TV station in order to apply for funding for the development of an idea. This is one option to sell your idea
- Conversely, editorial departments of TV stations also look for film material. They then develop these further with a freelance author they trust or a production company.
Obviously you will do your homework first before contacting us. In this case this means for you: You have to find out which station or production company already produces thrillers in the way you want them to be. Otherwise you will never be able to sell your idea.
This is what reality looks like
So much for the theory that you could approach a broadcaster or a specialized company. In practice, unfortunately, the situation is different for selling an idea.
First of all, there are a huge number of people who succumb to the illusion that anyone who can watch a TV thriller can also tell or invent one. This leads to a flood of e-mails to broadcasters and producers, all of them with ideas that often do not respect the potential or the basic rules for a broadcasting format. For the recipients, such requests are no more and no less than an unpaid labour input. In order to spare themselves this, senders are therefore happy to forward your request to a production company. Or you can let the sender run into the void with a pre-formulated answer that is as friendly as it is elegant.
Secondly, production companies constantly make the experience that they are contacted by a huge number of laymen. They are convinced that they have the best TV movie or format idea ever and want to sell their idea. In 99% of all cases such inquiries turn out to be garbage. That’s why people prefer to work with experienced screenwriters. They know what they are talking about. This way, a production can save itself many misunderstandings and sometimes even legal trouble.
The only exceptions are: Exposé, treatment or scripts. They are read. There are rules for their form and content. As a TV broadcaster or producer, this allows you to immediately assess whether the sender can do what he does. Here you not only sell the idea, but also its elaboration.
The solution is called Exposé …
That’s why we recommend that you formulate your idea for a TV thriller in the form of an exposé. With your name, a working title, contact address and date, your idea is also legally protected. This way you can sell your idea.
As a clever mind you don’t shoot your exposé randomly around the world. It’s a good idea to first find out whether the recipient is interested in new ideas and unknown authors by e-mail or phone. Only if this is the case, only then, send your idea for the story.
… or you are Scrooge McDuck
If you have a filthy rich dad, there is another way to sell an idea: You hire a well-known TV writer and let him work on the basis of your briefing. You pay and get the elaborated idea as an exposé. For this purpose you should definitely make a script contract with the person who develops your idea.
You can also look for a young author at a film school. If he or she is not in the first year of study and is looking for a chance to make a name for himself or herself, you might be lucky and get a perfectly elaborated film sketch from him or her. But don’t forget to arrange the conditions of the collaboration. Otherwise you are bound to get into trouble selling the idea!
What do I get if I can sell my idea?
For a sold exposé, i.e. a professionally formulated and convincing idea, you can expect between € 500 and € 1500.
But don’t be too happy too early!
As mentioned before: You are in direct competition with experienced professionals of many years. And in most cases you are dealing with an area that is new to you. For example, every program slot, but also every crime series on TV has its very own profile for a defined group of viewers. In other words: if you write past the airing place and the target audience, your film idea is dead faster than the victim in your crime thriller.
But if, contrary to all expectations, you land a bull’s eye, it may even be an advantage if you don’t want to take over the further development of your idea after the sale. If the broadcaster or production company does not know you, they do not have to fear that you will fail in the next steps, which are becoming increasingly difficult.
Can I still have a say after the sale of the idea?
Basically, as the owner of the rights, you are always in a position to determine under which conditions you sell your film sketch or series idea. The same applies to the price. Correct negotiation is half the battle.
The reality of selling an idea is different. In the eyes of your counterparty, paying you is an investment that is not without risk. And he who pays commands.
A rule of thumb says that a producer needs 100 film sketches to create ten convincing scripts. Of these 10 scripts, exactly 1 idea is filmed. Against this background, every film producer considers very carefully how much he pays and to what extent he allows his freedom to be restricted in the further development of the material. This train of thought is decisive when selling an idea.
That is why you will almost certainly have to be happy if you get a few hundred euros for selling your idea. This will only be the case if you transfer all rights to the buyer of your film material.
How to sell an idea: Caution is required in these cases
You should be very, very careful where someone promises you big money for the sale of an idea, no matter what form it takes, or gives you an immediate say in the process.
In this case you are either dealing with a beginner or a dreamer. Or there are dishonest deals behind the offer and buyer of the idea. Money from dubious sources can also be laundered through film production, even though cases from abroad have usually become known.
Remember: Even people like Harvey Hollywood have worked with melodious promises.
Are ideas protected?
Not an idea per se, but its formulation is protected by copyright.
In the European area this is automatically the case from the time of its creation. You don’t have to register your film idea somewhere like in the USA
How do I protect myself against the theft of ideas?
The legal protection is already given with the formulation of the idea. Even if you tell your idea to someone orally at a meeting, you can take action against copyright infringement independently of the sale of the idea.
The problem with this is that when it comes to trouble, it is often word against word. You can’t prove what you said. If the idea you want to sell is in writing and the correspondence with the buyer is in writing, it is crystal clear what you wrote.
But there is one thing you have to consider!
It is one of the oldest tricks in the business of entertainment and ideas. It goes like this:
You unsuspectingly send your ingenious story to a potential business partner. Because you know that you can’t sell him an idea on your own, you have formulated it. So you do everything 100% correctly! But … then you receive a very friendly reply from the other side. It says that unfortunately they cannot go any further with your offer. This is because you have already started working on an almost identical idea at an earlier stage.
But there is also a proven way to prevent such messes when selling an idea.
You simply send your own exposé to yourself by registered mail. The date of the official postmark is a valid proof of the time the idea was born. If you want to sell the idea later, you can prove that you had it first.
If you get the feedback that your idea is identical to an existing one, you kindly ask the other side for a legally binding proof of when this similar idea was created. If this proof cannot be provided, you have a good chance of enforcing your rights in a legal dispute.
Selling an idea: Conclusion
Selling an idea for a TV thriller or other content is always a challenge. It doesn’t change whether you want to write the script yourself or just the exposé.
You won’t get rich by selling an idea. Unless you are an absolute superstar in Hollywood. Someone who has already proven as a serial killer in the industry that you can make heaps of money with your ideas. Or who, by playing a role in his own story later on, minimizes the risk for the buyer and maximizes the chances of a windfall of money.
For all other normal mortals, the following applies: You don’t stand a chance. So use it and sell your idea! We wish you good luck and success.
Ask Dr. Film
Please note that answering legal questions is always decided on a case by case basis. Laws and jurisdiction differ within and outside the EU, sometimes even in the German states. We therefore do not assume any liability for legal advice. Thanks for your understanding!
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