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Real Life Stories
by Susan Basko, Esq.
Real life stories are popular for movies and books. This article is about real life stories based on living people. For such a story to be marketable, the person usually has to have some newsworthy thing happening in their life and some name presence in the media. The catch to this is that if a person is appearing in the news for a certain topic, then anyone can write a book or screenplay based on what is in the news. Many real life movies are based on long magazine style news articles. One cannot base a book or movie on someone else's magazine article without their permission, because that violates their copyright. The same goes with a book: to make a movie of it, you need permission from the author.
When a book or movie is made based on one person's life story, that person's permission may not be needed if the person is in the news. However, such a story cannot delve into topics that are not in the news, as that is a violation of privacy rights. Therefore, many movie and book stories are written with the participation of the subject. And they are often based on a lengthy, well-researched article. Such articles are copyright protected and if someone other than the authors were to create a screenplay based on a magazine style article, they would be sued for copyright infringement for creating a derivative work.
How does the subject of the book or movie make money? There are several ways. If the subject has not yet signed away the rights to their life story to whoever wrote the book or article, then they can charge for the additional right to turn the book or article into a screenplay for a movie. There will be an option price, with an additional higher price to be made if the option is exercised and the story will be made into a movie.
In addition, or instead, if the subject has already signed away the story rights, on a book, the subject can be a co-author or advisor. On a movie based on an article,a the subject can act as a consultant on the movie. However, to get such a contract, the subject has to really exert effort. No movie wants bad publicity, and making a move for millions of dollars while the subject is not being paid is bad publicity. If the subject of the movie has special knowledge that will make the movie more realistic, it is easier to get a consulting position. However, a film director usually does not want the subject present on the film set and does not want to give the subject any creative control.
A big consideration in real life stories are the other people in the story. Most times, those people are fictionalized, with their names and details changed. Often, several real life characters will be combined into one. However, if there is a real life person who is identifiable as a character in the movie or book, it is usually best to get their permission and approval of the way they are portrayed. Failure to do so on a private person (not a public figure) will almost surely result in a lawsuit.
Companies often want to acquire optional rights to create any form of media, in case the story has legs. That might include the optional right to create a book, a movie, a TV show, and to license merchandise of any form.
Other times, only movie rights will be acquired. This often happens by taking an option on a well-researched, lengthy news magazine article. An option is the right to purchase the story for a set amount of time for a set amount of money. For example, an option might cost $5000 and give the right to buy the story for $100,000 any time in the next six months. That is just an example.
Generally speaking, story rights being sold to be made into a TV movie or mini-series will sell for significantly less than the rights being sold for a major movie. If the rights are being sold to be made into a documentary or low budget film, the price might be quite low. In that instance, you will want the grant of rights to be nonexclusive so that you can also sell the story rights for a major motion picture if that interest comes along later. Sometimes a major movie maker will see a documentary or low budget film and will get interested in making a movie. If you have had the foresight to write the contract so that it leaves open this possibility of another film being made on the same subject matter, then you can do this. In most instances, the larger budget film will bring back interest to the lower budget or documentary film - so this all works together for the advantage of everyone.
Film companies option far more stories than they will ever make into movies. Some companies might buy an option to keep that story away from the competition, with no intention of making a movie. This is why it is a good idea to bargain for a high option price for a short period of time. This separates those who are seriously interested in making a movie versus those who are looking to stockpile options.
When getting an initial option, the writer(s) and subject should each be represented by their own lawyers. There are so many considerations, including price on option, price on story, obligations, creative control, ability to approve or disapprove of a character portrayal, consulting, credits, perks. And so much more. If the subject is involved in creating the story or getting the option, they should look to protect not only their own image, but those of their family and friends. Respecting the dignity and privacy rights of other real life people named in the story is of utmost importance. Generally, a waiver and permission should be signed by each such person, if they will give it. This usually must be purchased from each person. Either that, or the characters must be deeply fictionalized so they are not recognizable, and their names changed. That does not work with characters who are family members of the main real life character. For those, portrayals must be done carefully and with great respect and a waiver must be gotten. Otherwise, the story must be adjusted.
People love real life stories. The object is to tell a good story without harming anyone. All sorts of considerations belong in the option. Those considerations will transfer over to the purchase contract. If you are the writer or the subject, you cannot option and then wait till the contract or till the movie is in production to start making demands for creative control. What you need must be spelled out from the get go. Do not try to do this without a knowledgeable lawyer.
Some people ask if a writer or subject will be given a percentage or "piece of the picture." A writer who is sought after may have leverage to bargain for this. Most other writers do not. The subject of a movie is rarely in a position to ask for a percentage. In most cases, if the story has been in the news, anyone can make a movie about it. The subject will be bargaining hard for a good option and purchase price and to possibly be paid to consult and for other protections and perks.