Writers

Q:  For some 10 years now, I’ve been trying to penetrate the 10 foot thick wall called “unsolicited.”  How do I get through it? I have no agent.

A:  We can answer your question, but frankly, you may not like what we’re going to say.  Unfortunately, that 10 foot thick wall is probably as old as the Great Wall of China and is equally as impenetrable.  For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of submitting a script to an individual, production company, studio or, god forbid, law firm only to have it returned to you with a letter classifying it as an “unsolicited submission,” we can give you a little background.


Continue Reading

 Q: A producer has offered to option my script.  I’m just starting out so the numbers are pretty low (it’s a 12 month option for $1,000 with a purchase price of the WGA scale).  I’m cool with that but have one problem with it:  what happens if she turns around and sells the option to a studio for a lot of money?  I think that’s what she plans to do.

A:  Pat yourself on the back, my friend.  You just spotted an issue that is often overlooked in standard option agreements.  To answer this, let’s talk a little background.


Continue Reading

Q:  I was wondering if you could help me with a problem I am having with the rights to a short story.  I have been in touch with the relevant owners of the copyright and they have been told by the author’s estate they are not allowed to do anything with the rights to the story.  However, what I am wanting to do with the story is not a direct adaptation — but more of an “inspired by.”  What I am wanting to do is a 60 minute TV one off.  The only thing I am desperate to hang on to is the short story’s “twist” and elements of the central dilemma. Where would I stand with moving ahead with different character names, different structure, but retaining the twist and profession of the central character from the short only – crediting only “inspired by”?

A:  Copyright law doesn’t protect ideas – it protects the expression of ideas.  This is a simple concept in theory, but applying it to a particular situation could be challenging.  For several excellent, definitive, and thought provoking discussions of this topic, please see our blog


Continue Reading

Q: A production company is planning to shoot a trailer for the script I wrote. They are paying all expenses for filming. When and how much should I expect to be paid for my script? And do I need a contract prior to filming?

A: It sounds like you took a spec script to a production company, they liked it and now want to shoot a trailer for it. This is unusual. Generally, the film is made before the trailer. Normally, if a production company likes the script, it tries to option the script (or buy it outright) or at least tries to get an exclusive shopping window during which it attempts to set it up at a studio. It’s unclear to me why this production company wants to spend money on a trailer without first tying up the script.

Maybe they don’t want to spend money for the option (but then again they’re willing to spend money on the trailer)? Maybe they’re relatively new and don’t know what they’re doing? Of course, you don’t have to be relatively new to not know what you’re doing — you just have to not know what you’re doing. And when you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, it’s hard to know what to do.
Continue Reading

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: I have the opportunity to option the rights to a screenplay based on a published book written about actual events (real crime genre) that deals with forgery and murder. The book author owns the underlying rights, the screenwriter has worked on spec without legal documentation. Having read both the book and the screenplay, it seems that the screenwriter has relied heavily on materials other than the original underlying material (the book). There have been a number of other books and many articles written on this story. From a legal perspective how uphill will this battle be? As an independent producer attempting to package and sell the project, should I be concerned with clearing all the rights now — or would you advise finding a party interested enough to pursue the story who has the muscle to get it done? To give you an idea, a good example of this kind of movie would be Shattered Glass, which was the true story about a journalist who fabricated stories in the New Republic Magazine.

A: This is a story about forgery, murder, and … possibly copyright infringement. You can get away with forgery and, often, murder. But I’d shy away from copyright infringement — it’s uncool and generally looked at negatively in Hollywood.

Actual events, or any facts for that matter, are not copyrightable. In 1924, Leopold, a law school student, and Loeb, who was about to start law school, murdered a teenager just to see if they could commit a perfect murder. Aside from the fact that this is the kind of people who go to law school, the fact is the facts of the Leopold and Loeb case are not protected by copyright. And so Leopold and Loeb inspired a play, a number of movies, a book, and even a graphic novel. Leopold and Loeb is also a law firm in Century City.
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 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?
Continue Reading