Monday, August 22, 2011

Optioning for film - or not

There is an old, long-forgotten war memoir that I would like to adapt into a film. I should point out that I'm a far cry from being a successful film producer. Yes - a film I helped develop picked up 'Best Feature' at IndieFest ... but that isn't exactly much in the world of cinema.

However I'm also not going into this blindly. I've researched who the copyright holder is (since the original author has long died) and although the literary rights has changed hands a few times in wills, it turns out that the current owner is living in Perth.

I've spoken to her (and exchanged some letters) and she originally had no idea that her great uncle had ever written a memoir. She is an elderly lady in a retirement village and, to put it bluntly, she has zero interest in the memoir.

She has given me verbal permission to adapt it in an extremely informal 'I don't care - do what you want with it' way - but as you can imagine that isn't exactly sufficient to move forward with development. Certainly if I was just going to dump the original text onto a blog I'd be happy enough ... but verbal permission certainly isn't good enough for a film project. (Nobody in their right mind is going to put money into a film where the original rights haven't been locked down)

So I am in a curious position - I want to give her money ... but she simply doesn't want to get paid!

From her position, of course, her reaction makes a lot of sense. We all hear about scam artists preying on elderly victims ... so would you really trust a chap on the other side of the country who tells you that he'll give you money just for signing a contract you don't really have the inclination to understand?

My question is this - instead of having a literary agent represent an author and search for buyers - is it possible to get some kind of 'reverse literary agent' involved? Basically someone who can sit down with the author (or copyright holder) and get a sale on behalf of an existing buyer ?


I have spoken with a producer and his suggestion was to simply ignore this particular memoir and work with the other accounts of the events. So I suspect that the market value for this particular account isn't very high.

I'm in a position where I want to treat her fairly - and I also want to be in a position to adapt the memoir. What would you suggest someone in my position do? Obviously I can just wait another 15 years or so for the copyright to expire ... or 'file off the serial numbers' of the original story - but neither are satisfactory solutions.

**This question was quite a bit longer and contained some details about the proposed deal, which I've removed in the interest of brevity and also because it just didn't seem right to publish them.**

I believe the 'reverse literary agent' you seek is an intellectual property lawyer. This situation is already murky and could get murkier - the only way to make sure everything is clear to everyone is to get a lawyer involved and get it all in writing. The current rights owner may not be interested in the project but there's no telling who may turn up in future years, and you need to protect your interest in the project and any film that may result. And I know lawyers are expensive - but they're cheaper than lawsuits.

Alternatively, you could do as the producer suggests - you only need to option the rights to the memoir if you wish to adapt that account of the historical events. If there is primary evidence elsewhere, or there's another published account that you could option, that's a valid course of action. Just make sure you don't end up with a script that resembles the memoir.

As a last recourse, find another project. There's plenty of great stories out there.

1 comment:

Marlena Cassidy said...

Verbal agreement is so not helpful. If you can't get it in writing with lawyers present, then you just have to move on with something else.