Doug Richardson, writer of Die Hard 2, Bad Boys and Hostage, shares advice on whether you need to get the life rights before you start that screenplay.
As advice goes, mine is pretty much like most everybody else who’s had a lucrative career in the writing game. What pearls I share are gleaned from my own experiences, observances, and wisdom gained from failure as much as success.
And some failures are way more instructive than others.
The following advice may sound so simple and obvious you might want to quit this post, skip through it, or just hang in for the amusement of the unbelievable anecdote of such extraordinary failure despite my fist pounding warnings. That said, let’s get on with it.
At a recent writer’s conference I had a good friend-slash-fellow instructor regale me with her own retelling of the true-life story told her that very day by a conference student. It was an amazing tale, the stuff of New York Times bestsellers. Not that I had any notion of penning it myself, the novelist in me was salivating at the chance of writing it as well as my screenwriter self was already casting the film adaptation in my head.
“Wow,” I said to my friend, pouring her a second shot of tequila.
“Don’t you know it,” she confirmed.
“You told her to lock up the life rights, yes?”
She surely had, also passing along her own experiences acquiring the rights to Pulitzer Prize-winning book she’d eventually adapted for the big and small screen. The following day, that very same student had signed up for a one-on-one sit down with me to discuss how she should approach writing that true-life tale. Screenplay first? Then a non-fiction book? The reverse? My first inclination was to ask her this simple question.
“Have you locked up the life rights?” I pressed.
“Well, I have their permission,” she replied.
And she did. Theirs was a friendly relationship. Next door neighbors, in fact. The life rights holder and the would-be writer with only a friendly fence to separate them.
“Believe me,” I kindly implored. “Invest in an attorney. The kind of lawyer who understands the ins and outs of acquiring and maintaining another’s life rights and adapting them into a publications, movies, etcetera.”
I told her to get it on paper. Signatures. Dates. Conditions. Terms. The whole nine yards written down and agreed upon from publication, monetary percentages, scaled out through potential publishers or movie deals. Until that chore is complete, the rest is hot air, not to mention a potential litigation disaster.
I was serious as a heart attack, having myself been hung out to dry on projects where I thought I had the rights locked down – only to later discover I didn’t. Yes. Projects. As in more than once, I’ve erred. And I had both lawyers and agents on my side and the rights still slipped through my fingers like ashes.
But this isn’t about me. It’s about her. And you. The rights holders and those hoping to attain certain rights. I know, I know. I sound like I’m lawyer pimping. Believe me, I’m not. And like you, when I’m wanting to write a particular book or movie on speculation, I sure as hell don’t want to slow my roll with expensive attorneys who bill by the hour.
But like I said. This teaching moment comes from my own failures as well countless others.
Or like this guy named Phil.
Okay. That’s not his real name. And he should be happy I’m keeping him anonymous. He was a blog fan who’d tracked me down, offered to buy me a few friendly beers at my local cantina in exchange for some advice of sorts. FYI, I’ve stopped doing this so please don’t show up on my doorstep hoping that if you buy me a couple foamies or cups of gourmet coffee, I’m going to lend you my knowledge.
Back to that guy named Phil. He was so excited to tell me about his pet film project based on a character made famous by a recently deceased author.
“Of course, you’ve contacted the (author’s) estate?” I asked.
“Do you think I should?” he asked.
“I know for a fact you should,” I said. “You’re playing with their I.P.” The I of it meaning Intellectual and the P of it being Property.
“I was hoping to finish the screenplay first and then show it to them,” he defended. “That way they can see what a great job I did.”
“You’re playing with fire,” I advised. “In fact, don’t be surprised when their attorney sends you a cease and desist letter for trying to exploit their property.”
“You think they’d do that?”
“It’s the (author’s) estate. It’s the estate’s job to jealously defend their property rights.”
“I think I’ll be okay,” he said. “I really love this thing. It’s my biggest passion project.”
“If it involves (the famous character), your passion project doesn’t belong to you.”
“It’d be such a great movie if I could only –“
“– If it’s a movie,” I interrupted, “then you’re also crossing the movie studio. I’d have to expect they might still own the movie rights to (the character) considering they’ve already made two movies featuring (that character). You think jealous estate lawyers are killers? Tangle with a mega studio and see if they don’t squish you like a bug.”
I went on to implore poor Phil to abandon his passion project for something else he had such big feels for. Surely, if you’re a writer worth a damn, you have more than one passion project. At least that’s what I argued, to no avail. Phil continued to claim that because he loved his movie that his sheer will and affection would push him over Himalayan-sized obstacles I’d just identified. How could this man be so dense?
Then it hit me. From somewhere in my spongy sub cortex, I retrieved a factoid that would surely save poor Phil from his inevitable creative doom. After all, he was buying the beer. I couldn’t let him leave like a lamb to slaughter.
“You know,” I recalled. “I think in the past few months or so, I read a blurb about some cable network mounting a TV show based on (the character).”
“Really?” he replied. He’d heard nothing of it, let alone the notion of performing a simple Google search. “Do you think that’s a problem for me? That’s a TV show. I’m talking about a movie.”
“Based on the same character? I think they’d have a big problem with some nobody thinking they’re going to make a movie based on the TV show they’re trying to mount.”
He questioned my memory. Whether my facts were correct. So instead utilizing an internet search, I simply texted my agent with the query. Seconds later, she returned with the name of the show, the network, and news that a full season of episodes had just been ordered.
“There,” I showed him. “Irrefutable evidence that there is a network owned by a very big parent corporation who not only owns or has exclusively secured the rights to (the character) but has also made a significant capitol investment in exploiting those rights. If they get a whiff that some putz is running around with a screenplay based on (their character), attempting to get financing for a movie, they are going to personally enjoy greasing the pole that slides you into a vat of boiling oil.”
“Wow?” he said. “You really think?”
This is where I pounded my fists into the table.
“I don’t think,” I said. “I know!”
I ended up paying the check. I told him he was going to need his money to defend himself from his own foolishness.
It was just last week that I was in the same cantina at the very same patio table. Only this time I was seated across from that writer’s conference student who’d been keen on acquiring the amazing life rights from her neighbor. She informed me that because of my strong suggestion, she’d engaged a life rights attorney. From there paperwork was spawned, negotiated, redrafted, and signatures properly applied. She was well into her screenplay, free to chase and create her vision without the self-inflicted encumbrances.
We toasted to her wise work.
Moral. Don’t be like Phil. Or me even. Be like her. Get those life rights on paper.