Q&A

Q: The rights to my novel were optioned to a producer in June 2008. Before anything was signed (though a contract with all terms was drafted and dated), another party made a much better offer that I felt I had to refuse because the “oral agreement” we had was binding (the producer sent me an email the following day saying we “closed the deal” on my novel). The production company proceeded to actively develop my project, sending books to potential screenwriters, etc., all summer long. Finally, in September 2008, contracts were signed by all parties. After 18 months from September (in March 2010), the option was renewed for one year.

My question is this: shouldn’t the rights have expired and reverted to me in December 2010 rather than in March 2011? When the oral agreement bound me to them and allowed them to begin active development, shouldn’t the clock on their 18-month initial option have started ticking? Why would they be granted 3 free months of development at my expense? I don’t want this company to buy my movie — and they can’t if the rights have expired. Have they?

A: You sound about as excited to sell your script as Luke Wilson was to be in those AT&T commercials. I guess money can’t buy happiness. Let’s start from the beginning to see how you could have avoided this in the first place.
Continue Reading Q&A: I Don’t Want the Company That’s Optioned My Novel to Buy It, and They Can’t if the Rights Have Expired. Have They?

Q: A few months ago, I wrote coverage on a non-fiction novel for a production company. Now, I’m interested in writing a screenplay on the same subject matter. If I sell the script to another studio, can the production company sue me? Granted, it deals with a well-known aspect of Polish jazz [the novel’s subject matter has been changed], but truthfully, I would never have been interested in the project had I not been paid to write the coverage. Help me!

A: Help is on the way, dear fan of Polish jazz, but truthfully, the help you need is not legal (isn’t not legal same as illegal?). You’re not alone, nobody would be interested in this project unless they were paid, and not even then, and then not even. Okay, I suppose Polish jazz is more pleasing to the ear than Brazilian jazz, but only marginally. Polish jazz once heard once can’t be unheard. You can’t unbutter that toast. But this is just my personal, uninformed opinion, as are most of my opinions. In fact, and I’m disclosing attorney-client privileged information here, two studios are fast tracking big budget Polish jazz projects as we speak, although they focus on the lesser known aspects of it. So you’d better hurry up with yours.
Continue Reading Q&A: Am I Okay to Proceed with a Script Based off a Novel I Covered for Someone Else?

Q: I’ve got what I think is a great idea for a script. I haven’t written anything yet but have a meeting with a producer about a different project and would like to run my idea by him. While I have a working relationship with him, I’m still a little afraid of having him take the idea and use it himself. Is there anything I can do to protect myself? Big fan of the blog by the way…

A: Thank you for the kind words. Over the past few years, we’ve built up quite an international fan base that’s, frankly, reaching Twilight status. I think this is an opportune time to share with you some of the love letters we’ve received from our fans (all actual e-mails from actual fans).

“Why can’t you give a simple straight answer to a real question.” — Law Professor in New York (with no time for punctuation details)

“I started to read your article about remaking PD movies but did not finish because normally you annoy me with your adolescent humor (which, by the way, is not very lawyer-like).” — Entertainment Paralegal in Los Angeles

“I was prompted by my desire to kindly suggest you cut the adolescent humor from your articles because it is just not lawyer like. Whichever one of you is the comedian – I suggest you stick with your lawyer job.” — Same Entertainment Paralegal in Los Angeles feeling the need to describe why he/she sent the first e-mail

Yes, these are our faithful readers (names redacted for our protection). We strive to please our fans and it gives us comfort to know we’ve been successful. A little message to all you other wannabe-humorous legal blogs that focus on the independent film industry: TOP THAT!!

Now that we’ve gotten our requisite self-congratulations over with, I guess we can take time out of our busy schedule to answer your question.
Continue Reading Q&A: How Do I Protect Myself From Idea Theft?

Q: What are the rules for making a remake based on a classic film that has fallen into the public domain? Do the elements of the script fall into the public domain automatically? The film is based on a novel, which is also in the public domain. Does this mean anyone is free to go and remake the film as he wishes or do you still have to get the approval from the heirs of the author (author of novel), director, etc…?

A: Finally, a simple Yes or No question. From now on, I will only answer Yes or No and Knock, Knock, Who’s There questions. After doing this blog for so long, I’m now officially out of jokes and answers — so I’ll start recycling jokes and answers from my old blogs. The jokes may seem a bit stale and out of date and the answers may seem non-responsive, but I’m told I’ll get a good deal of carbon offsets for recycling them.
Continue Reading Q&A: What Are the Rules for Making a Remake Based on a Classic Film That Has Fallen Into the Public Domain?

Q: How do I create a document to attach myself as a producer/actor to the writer of a pilot/show that I am going to present to a big time TV producer?

A: My two-year old has just turned two, my one-month old has just turned one month, and I’ve just turned grey. Before you attach yourself to this show, think twice about having kids. Think three times. I can change a diaper literally in my sleep in the dark with both hands tied behind my back. Here is what I want you to do: take off your shoes and socks and as if kicking a 50 yard field goal stub your pinky toe against a brick, twice. It has little to do with your question, but I haven’t slept since the BP oil spill started and I just want someone to pay. [Ed. Note: This post was originally written in June 2010. The jokes are dated. But the wisdom is timeless.]
Continue Reading Q&A: I Need to Attach Myself to a Project Someone Else Wrote…What Do I Do?

Q: I’m not a WGA member. I’m writing a script for a company that’s also non-WGA. I hope that at some point the project gains some traction and gets set up at a studio or other WGA signatory company. I’ve been told that if I am classified in my agreement (with the non-WGA company) as a “professional writer,” I’ll be able to get the WGA benefits if the project eventually winds up with a signatory. Is that true?

A: One of my biggest problems with people is that they tell you things. Take my parents. They told me that Santa Claus was a real, semi-obese man living in the North Pole. They also told me that the mall Santas are really Santa’s elves that have dressed up like him so that they can gather information and bring it back to the real Santa. And I believed them. Then one night after I lost a tooth and put it under my pillow for the Tooth Fairy to pick up, I woke up to find not Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in a tutu, but my dad crawling on my floor with a dollar bill in his hand. After initially thinking he may have just gotten lost on the way to Jumbos Clown Room, I realized that the whole darn thing was a sham; Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and probably even Cal Worthington.
Continue Reading Q&A: I’m a Non-Union Writer, Will I Eventually Get WGA Benefits for My Script?

Q: I spent three years developing a pilot script for a television series I created. I sent a copy to a writer/director who I knew had ties to a cable network, and with whom I had worked on another television series. Three months later, I happened to read on an online industry blog about a pilot that had been sold, the plot of which is identical to the one I sent, to the cable network the writer/director had contacts with. Then a few weeks later, I met an executive of the cable network who is familiar with the project and the writer/director. She confirmed that the pilot that was picked up by the network was with the same writer/director. It just so happened that I’d also sent a copy of my pilot script to this executive a few months prior to sending it to the writer/director. Without seeing the entire script of the pilot that was picked up, should I be suspicious about this convergence of events? What are my options here?

Signed: Trying not to be too paranoid in Hollywood.

A: Dear Too Paranoid, may I call you Too Paranoid? Thanks. Trying not to be too paranoid in Hollywood is like trying not to be too wet in a pool — futile or delusional or both. Maintaining a high, healthy level of suspicion and distrust of your friends, children, mentors, colleagues, and homo sapiens in general is a wise, time tested policy in all but few (can’t think of any) circumstances, let alone in Hollywood. Should you be suspicious of this convergence of events? Should a casino be suspicious of a player hitting a slot machine jackpot twice in a row?
Continue Reading Q&A: I Sent My Pilot Out for Notes, Now There’s an Oddly Familiar TV Show in the Works. Should I Be Suspicious?

Q: During film school, I was pitched a script that I connected with, and another producer and I optioned it. I worked with the writer to strengthen the story, raised $400k of the film’s $1.5M budget, hired and paid a Line Producer, worked with a finance company and film commission, and attached an actor for a key role. My producing partner was supposed to go to his agent and manager for help raising the remaining funds and packaging the deal with in-house talent. After months of them stonewalling me, I emailed my partner saying that I was removing myself from the project, which he relayed this to his management team. Now they want to move forward with the film, attaching themselves as producers and cutting me out. The option hasn’t expired and was submitted to the copyright office in both my partner’s name and mine. Can they do this or am I still considered a producer until the option expires in November 2011 regardless of my email?

A: Your situation reminds me a lot of the film Monsieur Hire. The management team is represented by the bald, fastidious misanthrope while you’re the gorgeous young woman who is the subject of his peeping tom lechery. As I’m sure you remember from that masterpiece, the misanthrope ends up taking the fall (quite literally) for the young lady’s bad deeds out of a twisted sense of love.
Continue Reading Q&A: I Optioned a Script With Another Producer, Now He Wants to Cut Me Out. Am I Covered or Out of Luck?

Q: So I wrote a pilot with a colleague of mine and we agreed that I would retain copyright, and therefore control of the script, and he would be a 50% profit participant on the sale of the pilot. We also designated the script credits as “Written By” me alone, and “Created By” both of us. Now I’m putting together a production company and I’m going to shoot the project. If/when it comes time to sell the show, how does that affect the deal between my co-creator and myself? How does the studio’s purchase reflect my participation as a production company? I want to keep this as simple as possible… Help.

A: When time comes to sell your show, it’s important that your agreement with your colleague (let’s call him “Jimmy” for the ease of reference) is in writing and signed. If it’s not, the buyer will insist that Jimmy also sign the agreement with the buyer — not just you, and that could lead to all kinds of “misunderstandings” and “differing recollections” about your agreement with Jimmy.
Continue Reading Q&A: I Hold the Copyright on a Script That I Co-Wrote. Now I Want to Produce It…Any Advice?

Q: I wrote a script based on my grandfather’s service in World War II. It’s obviously very personal. We’ve got a filmmaker whom we really like who’s interested in optioning it. I think this guy will do a great job, but my grandfather is still alive and I just want to make sure his image and story are going to be protected. I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it but thought I’d check with you guys…

A: Every writer’s script is that writer’s baby and, to a person, they’re almost all concerned that some producer is going to acquire their script and turn it from Gone with the Wind to Gone in 60 Seconds (the Nic Cage version). The problem is, every producer is afraid they’re going to acquire a script and have some obnoxious screenwriter chirping in their ear telling them how to make the movie (producer’s generally think screenwriters should be kept in small, dark, smoky rooms filled only with coffee mugs and typewriters). Once screenwriters sell their scripts, they’re usually no longer involved, unless they have some right to do rewrites.
Continue Reading Q&A: Can a Screenwriter Protect His Script from Changes By the Producers?