Contracts

Q: I have a question that I’ve been toiling over for months. I’ve done some research on it and cannot find a clear answer. I’m beginning to work with a writer on a screenplay on someone who died about 20 years ago. She has surviving brothers, but her parents are dead and she never married or had children. What type of life story rights do we need to acquire to tell this story — a screenplay that could potentially turn into a feature film? I guess the first question should be do I even need to buy or acquire the life story rights? Can I just change her name?

A: First of all, there is really no such thing as life story rights. There is the right against being defamed. There is the right against certain private facts about you being publicly disclosed without your permission — the New York Times would be violating it if its reporter sneaked in your bedroom, copied your most secret diary entries, and published them. And there are certain other rights of this nature. But there is no life story rights. When you buy life story rights, what you really “buy” is a promise from the subject of your story that they will not sue you for defamation or any number of other possible violations of their privacy rights.

In theory, you can make a movie about anyone alive without obtaining their “life story rights,” as long as the movie doesn’t defame the subject and doesn’t violate all these other privacy rights. In practice, that’s hard to do and no matter how much you try not to violate these rights, you can’t stop someone from alleging you did. So practically, in most cases, when a movie is made about someone alive, “life story rights” are acquired.

Now let’s focus on the dead. Perfect timing — Halloween is less than a month away. The dead can’t be defamed. The dead have no rights of privacy. The dead have no say about how they’re portrayed in movies. You can say anything you want about the dead, true, false, or in between. Well, not all of the dead.
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Q: A friend is self-financing and producing a micro-budget script that she wrote. She has asked me to help as an Associate Producer. It seems like a Work for Hire situation, but there’s no money for salaries. What’s the best way to formalize such an agreement?

A: As a basic rule in life, never get involved with any endeavor that can be described in a sentence that includes, in any order, the words “friend,” “self-financing,” and “micro-budget.” If the basic rule applies, run. She can’t be that good of a friend. You didn’t say she’s your best friend, just a friend. A friend in LA, at most, means you met her once and she added you to her 1,500 (and growing) other “friends” on Facebook. But even assuming she’s really a “friend” as used to be defined by a dictionary, then keep in mind that the second best way to lose a friend is to work for free on a “micro-budget” production. (In case you’re wondering, the best way is to lend money to a friend to produce a “micro-budget” script.)

But if you’re itching to test these common sense axioms, if you’re in it for a life lesson, then here is how you should formalize the deal.
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Q: I am optioning a German film to do an English-language remake. Anything special I need to worry about?

A: Well, apparently you need to worry about broccoli. Does your film have anything to do with broccoli? Are you going to be eating broccoli while filming? What’s the broccoli status of your film? Do you even like broccoli? Honestly, I’m not even sure I’m going to be able to answer all the concerns you may need to address if broccoli is involved.

If broccoli is not involved, you’ll still have some issues you’ll need to address. Because copyrights can be divvied up, and you’re dealing with a pre-existing movie with its entire bundle of rights, you have to worry about exactly what rights you’re getting and what rights they’re keeping.
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Q: How binding is a letter of intent? Nearly eight years ago, I signed a one-paragraph agreement in which I allowed a producer to attach himself to my original screenplay and shop it around. He found no takers and hasn’t submitted the script anywhere for at least five years. Now I’m thinking of reviving the project, but would prefer to do so without the producer’s involvement. Do I have any further legal or moral obligation to him? I would like to add that no money exchanged hands; the producer never actually optioned or bought my screenplay.

A: A true letter of intent is as binging as your To Do list, or at least it should be. You intend to do the things on your To Do list, but if you don’t do them you won’t get sued. The only way a letter of intent is legally binding is if it’s not truly a letter of intent. It’s not what you call something, it’s what it is. You can have a piece of paper called a letter of intent that actually contains a binding agreement or you can have something called a binding agreement that actually contains no agreement at all but just a list of non-binding things the parties intend. It seems like you have something called a letter of intent which actually contains your agreement to attach a producer to your screenplay.
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Spoiler alert: not all movies succeed.

In any given year, the bombs will outnumber the blockbusters, much to the dismay of the companies fronting the cash (and that doesn’t even count all the movies that “lose money” on paper). American treasury bonds may no longer be AAA gold-plated, but you better believe they’re a safer bet than financing a movie — just ask every pro athlete who went bankrupt investing their multi-million dollar advance into a pet motion picture project. But not everybody who watches their investment wither and die at the hands of unforgiving reviewers and uninterested audiences is willing to just walk away. For these investors, there is recoupment by litigation (and entertainment lawyers everywhere rejoiced!).

Consider the financiers of the movie Free Style, who filed a lawsuit last week in hopes of salvaging their investment in the box office bomb. Unsurprisingly, the suit names the producers as defendants, alleging that they made misrepresentations about the marketing budget and the scope of the movie’s release. More interestingly, though, the financiers are going directly after star Corbin Bleu (of High School Musical fame, for those of you without tweenage daughters), alleging that he failed to honor an agreement to provide interviews to promote the film. As a result, say the money men, after they loaned $8.57 million, the movie only earned $1.3 million from all sources including foreign distribution and DVD sales. (If you’re thinking that’s not so bad, chew on this: the movie earned only $463 on opening weekend in the United States. Yes, 463 dollars, no zeros added. The investors might have been better off selling their collectible Barbies on eBay that weekend.)

Since you’ve likely never heard of the movie (case in point?), here’s a synopsis: “High School Musical’s Corbin Bleu trades in his dancing shoes for a helmet in this family film. InFree Style, young Cale (Bleu) gives his all in his effort to be on the Grand National Motocross racing team, while his mother (Penelope Ann Miller), sister (The Game Plan’s Madison Pettis), and girlfriend (Sandra Echeverria) cheer him on.”

I’ll give you a moment while you toggle over to Netflix to add the DVD to your queue. You’re welcome.

So, having taken the unusual step of suing the star of their film, what hurdles do the investors face in proving their case against Bleu?
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Curt Sachs once said that “dance is the mother of the arts.” Sounds very eloquent, doesn’t it? You can’t help but think of a beautiful ballerina gracefully cascading along the stage, performing in front of an adorning audience. Now, take this quote and those serene images, place them on train tracks, wait for speeding train to hit, and…boom! You now have Dance Moms, Lifetime’s latest so-called reality show and voyeuristic indulgence featuring infamous dance studio owner Abby Lee Miller, several of her young dancers, and their overbearing moms. The show appears to be loosely scripted, at best, to contrive needless drama and controversy. Does anyone seriously believe that these moms were genuinely outraged by the “wildly inappropriate” costumes their daughters were wearing? Pah-lease!

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04qKJ1QcR8Y&feature=player_embedded

Not surprising that the best they could do was Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. on Lifetime. (Although we can all be grateful to the show for helping to bring the phrase “prosti-tots” into the vernacular. So, you know, thanks for that.)

Before I write any further, I should probably confess that I am both a former dance competition kid and, by definition, a dance mom. Like the Abby Lee dancers, my 11-year old daughter dances nearly 20 hours a week, performs in nine group routines and two solos, and attends many of the dance competitions and conventions featured by Lifetime. So, are the rest of us dance moms angry that the show entirely ignores the positives of youth dance in favor of gross sensationalization? That it fails to point out that, instead of coming home from school and sitting on the couch playing video games, these dance kids are getting incredible exercise, learning an art form, gaining performance skills, building self-confidence and creating life-long friendships? That it ignores how the drive and ambition these kids build as young dancers will launch them into a variety of successful, non-dance careers? Absolutely. Am I writing this blog to express my distain for Lifetime’s unfair and irresponsible depiction of the dance world? Maybe. But behind all the pirouettes, the show raises some interesting and novel legal issues. Really.
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Q: A production company optioned my script. They wanted a few changes, and they paid me to do a rewrite. I liked some of their changes, but many I didn’t. So I only made the changes that I liked. I think the script is much stronger now, but they let the option expire. I thought that I can now sell the script to someone else, but a friend told me that, because I had a separate writing agreement, the production company owns my rewrite. How can that be?

A: Unfortunately for you, your friend could be right. This is easier to discuss around a concrete example. Let’s say your original script was a Raymond Chandler style film noir about a pair of unshaven LA cops named Bill and Bob who have a drinking problem, drive a hugentic SUV, and date two women named Betty and Barbara who smoke and have jealous husbands. The production company loves it but feels the story would work even better if re-imagined as a buddy comedy in which Bill and Bob are clean-shaven security guards at a Cleveland shopping mall who have a drinking problem, drive a tinicious Smart Car, and date two women named Betty and Barbara who don’t smoke but still have jealous husbands. And the best part is the production company will actually pay you to rewrite it this way. So you go to work, and in a few short weeks Bill and Bob wreak hilarious havoc at the mall.

Just as you finish the rewrite, the production company gets a new owner who decides to produce nothing but straight-to-Cinemax “documentaries.” Your Red State buddy comedy doesn’t fit this vision so the production company lets the option on your script expire without exercising it. You think you’re now free to sell your laugh-out-loud Ohio buddy comedy to the highest bidder.
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Q: I’m a producer and am doing a small low budget film. I’m wrapping up some of my actor agreements right now, and one of my actors, who’s had a few bit parts in some straight-to-DVD movies, has asked for a “stop date.” I’m pretty sure I know what that means and think I’m okay giving him one but are there any aspects to a stop date I should be wary of?

A: I’ve been on a few “stop dates” in my day. I show up at my date’s door and she says “stop,” turns around and shuts the door. Luckily those days are past because I’m a hotshot entertainment attorney with a popped collar (oh, and I’m married with two kids).

Your stop date, of course, has nothing to do with the preceding terrible joke. It’s a protection that actors may ask for but may not always get. Unfortunately, “stop date” is another term that’s bandied about in the industry as though it means something concrete, when in fact it means whatever it’s defined to mean in an agreement. Therefore, your first lesson, if you decide to give your actor a stop date, is to clearly define exactly what is being stopped on that date.
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Q: I have just had a novel published by a small publishing house in Montreal, and there is already talk of adapting this into a film. The original publishing agreement does not include subsidiary rights, and the publisher — who is in touch with the movie interests — wants to write a separate deal between me and him over the movie rights. I have no fundamental objection to this, but don’t know what the split between author & publisher should be. Can you tell me what is usual/standard in such cases?

A: The usual/standard in such cases is to try hard to develop a fundamental objection to this. It’s customary for many publishers in the US and Canada not to acquire film rights to the books they publish. The custom in Europe and elsewhere is just the opposite: publishers acquire not only publication rights but also film, TV, and other “subsidiary rights.”

It seems that the only rights the publisher acquired to your novel are the publication rights. And you retain film and other “subsidiary rights.” If that’s the case, the split between you and the publisher should be 100/0, in your favor. Film rights to your novel are your property, and there is no reason why you should cut in the publisher. Why stop at film rights? Maybe you should also split with the publisher the proceeds from the sale of your boat?
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A little over a year ago, I wrote about a rash of lawsuits brought by managers against former talent clients. If 2010 was, as I suggested, the year of managers suing their ex-clients for unpaid commissions, then 2011 appears to be year of agents suing their ex-clients for the exact same thing. This time, though, the agents are in the driver’s seat.

Last week, one of the biggest agencies in the world, United Talent Agency, sued Adam Herz, a writer and producer on American Pie 3, for at least $700,000 in unpaid commissions. A few days later, a story broke about Paula Abdul firing UTA and refusing to pay UTA commissions on her income from X-Factor. UTA seems ready to fire off another lawsuit against Paula. So, what gives? Why is UTA all of a sudden getting stiffed (or, to quote the terrible pun making its way around the Internet, “Stifler’d”)?
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