“Hollywood held this double lure for me, tremendous sums of money for work that required no more effort than a game of pinochle.” – Ben Hecht
As I introduced myself to the executive in charge of project development, I could sense that she was getting ready to pass on mine before I even had a chance to tell her what it was about. But when I explained that I had acquired the life rights to the story of one of the principals … suddenly, she was all ears.
In the world of film and television, there is a curious paradox. Everyone in the business is clamoring for a great idea, but it seems nobody wants to hear yours – unless, that is, it’s based on a true-life story that catches their interest.
In ETR #1866, I explained that one of the easiest ways to break into Hollywood is by selling an idea based on a true-life story. There was an overwhelming response from readers interested in learning more – so, today, I’m going to give you some of the details.
True-life stories are virtual goldmines in Hollywood. You’ve probably seen this type of movie many times. The advertising for it will say something like “Based on a true story.” And, let’s face it, those words pique your interest. I know when I watch extraordinary events on film or television and I know they really happened, I am enthralled.
The almost universal appeal of a true-life story is what Hollywood counts on when they promote those movies. And that can open doors that might otherwise be closed to you.
If you find a good, true story, you can get it turned into a movie – without knowing anyone in the business. But before you start making phone calls, there are some basics about acquiring true-life story rights that you need to understand.
A movie can sometimes be made about a story that’s in the public domain (like one based on a major legal case where the facts are a matter of public record) without obtaining anyone’s life rights. But even then, there are reasons to do it.
Basically, the purchaser of someone’s life rights to their story is obtaining a release that protects him from a lawsuit based on defamation or invasion of privacy. Sometimes the seller might also agree to provide additional information that might not be otherwise available.
Let’s say, for example, that you wanted to produce a film about a famous murder trial. Although there may be quite a bit of information in the public record, you could get sued if you produced a film that offended one of the people involved. Additionally, without the cooperation of at least one of the principals to fill in holes that aren’t in the public record, it would be much harder to produce an accurate portrayal of the events surrounding the trial.
If, on the other hand, one of the principals signs an agreement authorizing you to produce such a film – and cooperates by providing you with a detailed account of his story – you will have protected yourself against the possibility of his suing you. At the same time, you probably will have improved the quality of the movie.
Now, you may be thinking that you’re not in a financial position to acquire life rights that you may not be able to sell. Don’t worry – you can “option” those rights. That is, you can pay a smaller amount (as little as one dollar) for the option to buy those rights within a specified period of time. You can then sell your position to an established producer.
How much can you sell it for? According to entertainment attorney Mark Litwak, that varies depending on the appeal of the story. “For a TV network broadcast movie, it might be $50,000 to several hundred thousand dollars. For feature films, it could be two times or more that amount. If the subject is famous, the figure could be considerably higher.”
In other words, if you do nothing else but find one viable true-life story each year that you can sell to Hollywood, you could potentially make an annual income of between $50,000 and $500,000.
Here’s the basic process:
- Find a captivating real-life story that might be able to be turned into a good movie. Perhaps something from your own life or from the experience of someone you know. Or maybe a “human-interest” story you read about in the newspaper or see on a TV news program.
- Acquire the life rights to the story from one or more of the principals.
- Sell the rights to a producer who will make the project.
Getting a meeting with the producer is going to be the hardest part. But once you get in the door, the fact that you have life rights to the story are almost certain to capture his or her interest.
When I met with the development executive I told you about earlier, all I had to do was mention that I had the life rights of the principal of the story, and she wanted to see more. I provided her with a one-page synopsis of the story, and I am now waiting to see if an offer will be made. Since I’m a screenwriter, if an offer is made, I’m going to try to negotiate a deal to write the screenplay.
But keep in mind that I was only able to get to this point because I had something that was of value: the rights to an interesting, true-life story.
Also keep in mind that you don’t need to be a screenwriter to sell a true-life story. All you need is the idea. And since good ideas alone are hard to protect legally, you also need the life rights of a principal in order to maintain control.
With the legal rights in your hands, you have a real chance of selling your hot idea to Hollywood.[Ed. Note: Paul Lawrence, a screenwriter who produced the feature film “Cruel World,” starring Jaime Pressly and Eddie Furlong, recently signed a deal to develop a television program with a major production studio in Hollywood.
Even if you’re a “nobody,” you could become Hollywood’s next success story. Find out more here.]