Writers

Q: I wrote a screenplay as a collaborative effort with three other people, and the four of us have a signed agreement regarding our collaboration. I registered the work with WGA (listing all four of us on the registration) and one of the other people took care of copyrighting the work. Well, he took the work and copyrighted it as him being the sole author. He did not put my name or either of the other two people’s names on it. It was not his idea, he is not the producer, and he did not write the screenplay. He is simply one of four that has developed the story. Now what do we do?

A: See, this is the problem with people. You try to work together, everything appears to be going along swimmingly and then one of them runs off and does something like this. Faithful readers, this is why your Law Law Land bloggers never interact with anyone, let alone each other. We find people as pleasant as the razor blade scene in A Prophet. That’s why we sit in our respective offices with the doors closed, shades drawn, pouring over legal documents, writing blogs, pounding 5-Hour Energies, and trying desperately hard to post humorous comments beneath the photos at http://www.awkwardfamilyphotos.com/.
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Q: I am about to sign an option agreement with some of Hollywood’s best independent producers. I wrote the screenplay with a WGA writer. I own the source material. The screenplay is based on my life story. I think I should be entitled to backend profits. The producers keep the international distribution rights and sell off the domestic. I don’t think I have a chance of the domestic profits but it is the international profits that this question is addressing.

A: The good news is you should be able to get some backend. The bad news is the backend you’ll be able to get will most likely amount to bupkis. But bupkis is still better than completely nothing.
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Q: There’s a script I’ve been interested in for a while. I’ve been trying to raise some financing so that I can produce it. I think I’m close to successfully putting some financing together but I just found out that there’s another producer that’s suddenly interested in it. I’m afraid that I’m going to lose it. I want to option it but don’t have the money yet. Anything I can do?

A: If you don’t have the money right now to option it, unfortunately your options are limited. Pun intended (as always).
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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.
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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.
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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.
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[Ed. Note: Law Law Land’s concludes its calendar-be-damned Oscar week with new contributor Stefanie Lipson, who takes on the plight of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner and his progeny.]

There is perhaps no greater culmination to a Hollywood film career than being honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars (even if, these days, it doesn’t even come with a lousy on-air acceptance speech…maybe that Robert De Niro episode at the Golden Globes scared off the Academy once and for all). Just ask this year’s recipient, Francis Ford Coppola. But after all that hard work in Hollywood, all the false starts (One From the Heart, anyone?) as well as the successes (too many to name, but I’d have to go with Captain EO), the accolades and the press, and adaughter following in her father’s large footsteps, turns out Francis Ford Coppola might have been better off making his fortune another way — at least when it comes to paying estate taxes (good thing he has that winery).

As an estate planning lawyer, I can confirm that Benjamin Franklin was right about the only things certain in life being death and taxes. Inevitably, I must inform clients who start sentences with the phrase “if I die…” that it really ought to be “when I die.” (Apologies to those readers who are offended by my morbidity. You may replace the word “die” in the sentence above with the death-related euphemism of your choice. For celebrities, I suggest “go to that great Starwagon in the sky.”) And taxes are no less inevitable: as the law stands, even those lucky authors who come up with an immensely successful creative work (screenplay, television series, book, song, etc.) and have the good sense to transfer ownership of it during their lifetimes can still get hit with an estate tax bill on their copyrights when they die.

How does that make sense, and what can successful creative types do about it? Let’s discuss.
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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.
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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.
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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?
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