Q&A

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.
Continue Reading

Q: I have a question regarding the rights needed to make a film “based on” a book, and/or “inspired by” a book. First of all, is there a legal difference between these two terms? It seems that one implies a more direct adaptation (“based on”) and the other a looser connection to a book, but is there some legal basis for determining this? Also, does one need to purchase the rights to a book that “inspires” their film? How about a book that it is “based on”?

A: In answer to your first question, while technically there is no legal significance to the specific words “based on” or “inspired by,” there is legal significance to what each term may imply.
Continue Reading

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.
Continue Reading

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.
Continue Reading

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.
Continue Reading

Q: My friends and I recently formed a production company that we plan to use to produce straight-to-DVD movies. We really like the name we picked and think it’s really distinctive. When we formed the company, we had to do a name search with the California Secretary of State. Luckily no identical name came up so I think we’re free to use the name without having to worry about some other company who’s using the same name, correct?

A: Incorrect. To ease the blow of this blunt, negative answer, let me first congratulate you on trying to stump the lawyers, whether you meant to or not. While your question sounds entertainment-y, it’s actually more a question about intellectual property law, and, more specifically, trademark law. Our moms read this blog (and probably make up 50% of our readership); are you trying to make us look bad in front of our moms?!
Continue Reading

Q: I just got back from Comic-Con a few weeks ago and met a writer there who had written a comic book that I think would be perfect for a film. I’m interested in optioning the book but I’m not really sure how to go about it since I’ve never dealt with comics before. Anything special I should be worried about?

A: Faithful Readers! Your Law Law Land Q&A team wishes we knew that you were at Comic-Con! We were there as well, championing the cause of legal geeks everywhere. You may have seen us: the unlikely duo of Captain Caveman and Slave Leia roaming the floors. But, alas, we recognize that with negligible power, comes negligible responsibility…so we are back behind our desks, glasses on, no one the wiser and are here to answer your questions.

Acquiring rights in comic books is much like acquiring rights to other properties. The first and most basic thing you need to know is who holds the rights you want to acquire. In the comic book world, there are a few different business models that are based on the size of the publisher involved; who owns the rights you need may depend on what type of publisher issued the comic book you like. If you’re dealing with one of the big two, namely Marvel or DC, chances are the publisher owns the rights in the comic book. There’s a reason Marvel created its own motion picture production company: it was tired of hiring and paying third parties to make movies based on its own properties.
Continue Reading

Q: I just had someone send me an option agreement. I’m not going to lie… a lot of it is legal mumbo jumbo that I don’t fully understand but seems harmless. There’s one thing though that seems really weird. It says that the Producer is my “attorney-in-fact” with the power to sign documents on my behalf? This strikes me as really sketchy. Is this Producer trying to pull something over on me?

A: I’m not going to tell you that the Producer is not trying to pull one over on you. All the Producer wants is the power to purchase a smallish yacht, a couple of European castles, a Picasso or two and some shrunken heads on your credit. So what if the Producer wants to go all MC Hammer in your name? At least you’ll have a chance to be the next FreeCreditReport.com singer. Right?

Half-hearted attempts at humor aside, that provision alone isn’t going to lead to a life of used sub-compacts and catchy jingles that get stuck in my head for weeks at a time. It’s actually a very common provision (that admittedly tends to scare people who actually take the time to read their agreements). If the provisions in your agreement have titles, the one you’ve quoted is likely under the title “Further Documents.”
Continue Reading

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.
Continue Reading

Q: I’m a budding producer who wants to get a great script off the ground. I’m trying to fundraise, but the writer and potential director are both looking for money at the same time. I want to make sure I don’t get cut out of the package if the director’s rich uncle ponies up the full budget before I can. How can I attach myself as a producer without forcing the writer to option the script to me? Is there a standard “attachment” form?

A: As a producer you must attach yourself to every script, project, idea, concept, and fleeting thought that you come across, read about, or overhear. And if your attachment is not welcome, it’s their problem. Producers aren’t bothered by what others think, and they don’t need an invitation to go to a party. As a budding producer that’s what you should aspire to and hope to become one day. Get up early every day, go out there, and don’t come back until you attach yourself to something, a remake of a prequel to a sequel, a classified ad, an anonymous tweet, anything.

There are many “standard” attachment forms. The only standard thing about them is that they all say different things. Using a form to make a deal is a lot like randomly typing a lot of words on a page and then signing it. In either case, you won’t know what the deal is or even if there is a deal.
Continue Reading