Q. 1) What does it mean when a studio wants to buy a pilot script; what are they buying?
They are buying all rights. The script, the characters, the series concept, spinoffs, prequels, movie rights, book rights, everything.
Q. What opportunities and/or obligations does that impart to the writer?
Whatever's in the contract.
There are two flavors of this deal. One is with a potential showrunner. One is with a writer who is not considered a viable showrunner. Either deal spells out how much money the writer gets for the option; how much he gets if the series is produced; what kind of royalty he gets per episode; whether he has a right to be similarly compensated, or even to work on, spinoff series, movie spinoffs, etc.
Either deal specifies what the writer's involvement on the show will be. In the case of the showrunner, that he'll run the show, at least until fired; also how much he'll get paid, how many scripts he's guaranteed etc. A less experienced writer should also be guaranteed a certain number of scripts and a staff job on salary.
Q. Can a lawyer handle a deal like this, or is it imperative that I have an agent?
Most contract lawyers, even most entertainment lawyers, are only able to make sure the contract says you get what the other side agreed you'd get. (Or, on the other side, to write language that makes sure the studio doesn't have to pay you what the studio agreed to pay you. Which is why you need a lawyer or a smart agent.) Top entertainment lawyers, and all good agents, know what deal terms to ask for and what not to ask for. However if you actually have someone optioning your pilot, it shouldn't be hard to find an agent willing to negotiate.
Q. What does 'development' entail? If the project is not bought outright and I'm to be involved in the production, what are my possible roles in the development process?
The project is never "bought outright." It's optioned. Then the studio (or prodco or network) commissions scripts. Depending on your stature in the biz, you may be able to insist on writing all the development scripts (my contracts do), or at least co-writing them. When the project gets a greenlight, then you move on to production scripts.
Note: I also blogged about this here
Labels: blog fu, development hell, spec pilots