I'm not at all a tough negotiator -- but, at my attorney's urging, I made counter-offers to the two places that were looking for an option that they would eventually turn down.
So now I've got no active option offer.
Part of the reason I was willing to stretch it like this is that someone else came in expressing interest -- and if that works out it'll be a substantially better deal than the others.
But there's no option offer yet and so that leaves me in the rather tense circumstance of waiting to see what this guy's partners/contacts will say.
In the past I played it safe and found out that I didn't need to -- so this time I'm not playing it safe and we'll see if that backfires.
I wouldn't refuse an option "on principle" -- because it was too low or whatever. If it's the only game in town and it's not looking too likely that someone else will come knocking, then sure, it's the only rational choice. And even low/no money options bring other advantages: you might be able to score an attorney or get a reference to some kind of representation; the no budget producers of today could be development execs at a mid-sized place in a couple years; and even if their careers don't work out, they still can get your script in front of other people, who might appreciate your writing style or ideas.
But accepting an option locks up your screenplay -- perhaps for a very long time. And if it remains available, sometime down the line one of these places that made the initial option offer might be in a better position to make another request -- in these cases typically because they'll have finished up with their current project and thus might be better able to put your script on what counts as the fast track for us beginners. Moreover, you would have waited for this anyway, since even if they did option your script now, they'd still need to get their current business out of the way.
Also, a lesson learned from Velvet Steamroller, beginning companies are prone to teething problems as they arrange their legal advice, set up their offices, and figure how they're going to handle the internal workings. This is fine -- that's what starting something is all about. But if you can keep the shopping rights to your script while they work those issues out, why not?
That said, even when the option money is microscopic, there's a psychological and time investment that companies put into scripts they've optioned. After the option it becomes partly theirs -- and that makes them love it more -- and that makes them work harder to get it made.