8 February 2015 - 3:03 pm

Movie trip-ups and pitfalls


Wouldn’t it be cool to see your story on here?
(Picture by Indi Samarajiva)

When I think about the possibility of selling a story to a movie studio and one day seeing my work up on the big screen, it seems like an impossibly exciting and terrifying thing. Of course, it’s a lot of work (if you happen to be involved), and they’re going to change stuff, and it might not match my own vision entirely, but still. My story. My name. Big screen.

I dare say I’m not the only writer who quivers at the thought. It’s hard to imagine being that lucky! Who wouldn’t be thrilled to sell the movie rights to a studio, particularly a big studio? (Sure, the chances of it actually being made into a movie might not be all that high; it might languish in pre-production hell for years and never wind up going anywhere. But it would still be thrilling to have the chance!)

It’s a tricky business to get into, though. Navigating the contract is the first minefield and you’ll need an expert to guide you through it safely. Selling rights to your work has many pitfalls, and if you want to retain any creative control, that adds more complications and potential barriers. How much control? What can we veto? What can we demand? When does the studio/director/creative controller get to tell us to pull our head in? We can’t all be George R.R. Martin and deeply involved in the adaptation. As the writer of the original work, we might not have any input at all.

We might not even have our name attached to it at all. Some writers might prefer that (particularly if the adaptation is vastly different from the original work), others might not care, while others might demand that the origin and inspiration of the work be attributed to them appropriately. If you want any kind of credit, you’ll have to specify it in the contract or risk missing out. You might even have to specify the placement of the credit as well, or risk winding up a footnote at the end of the end credits that only Marvel movie-goers sit through.

Like any contract, it’s best to get an expert to handle the details for you, someone who will defend your interests in the way that you want. I won’t pretend that the above is all you have to worry about; I’m sure there are many more details that will need to be worked out.

Until recently, I thought that once the contract was agreed, that would be it. Everyone signs the dotted line and the project goes along accordingly. Apparently, that’s not always the case, as Tess Gerritsen found out.

Tess Gerritsen has written many books and been adapted to screen a few times (for example, in the current TV show, Rissoli and Isles). She is currently embroiled in a law suit against Warner Bros. about the 2013 movie Gravity, because she believes that it was based off a story (with the same name) she sold to a different studio, New Line Productions. The original project died before fruition, and yet a few years later, after New Line was bought by Warner Bros., a very similar movie became a reality. Gerritsen was not involved in the Warner Bros. project, she wasn’t paid, and none of her original contract was honoured.

In a recent blog post, Gerritsen says that this could set a dangerous precedent for selling intellectual property (your story, project, or concept) in Hollywood. If the entity you sold that IP to is bought, the new owner inherits the contract, but they might not have to abide by the terms of that contract. This isn’t a case of plagiarism; it’s a case of breach of contract. In her words:

Warner Bros., through its ownership of New Line, also controls the film rights to my book. They had every right to make the movie — but they claim they have no obligation to honor my contract with New Line.

She’s right: writers who sell their work should be worried. We spend hours and hours of our lives on creating these stories; to have them stolen out of hand and profited from is unfair, immoral, and should be considered illegal (or whatever the civil breach-of-contract term is)*. Gerritsen’s case is not yet finished (she is in the process of re-filing her claim), and it’ll be interesting to see what happens.

I wish her luck, for her sake and for other writers who may find themselves in a similar position (and assuming that her claim is justified, of course, though I find her argument compelling). I hope this isn’t a symptom of another way creators are robbed by the industry.

If only it wasn’t so tempting (and potentially lucrative) to see our work on the screen!

* This doesn’t reflect my view on piracy, though it strikes me that the arguments are similar. That’s a whole other post for another time.

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