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ACQUIRING UNDERLYING RIGHTS: You Can Participate in the Life's Blood of the Entertainment Industry

Mitch Paradise gives advice to screenwriters on acquiring underlying rights to real-life stories.

Mitch Paradise has been a member of the Writers Guild of America since 1983. He adapted and Executive Produced “Bleacher Bums” for a Showtime original movie, based on the award-winning play. His screenplay adaptation of the biography, “Nick the Greek, King of the Gamblers” by Cy Rice, will be published as a graphic novel which he will write – basically adapting himself after adapting the novel he first acquired the rights to 30 years ago. He is currently circulating a spec television pilot in the industry that he adapted from a group of novels by the same writer and featuring the same main character. Mitch has acquired the rights to numerous other true-life stories, some of which have first appeared in daily newspapers or national magazines, often negotiating his own contracts. Visit Mitch's website here.

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ACQUIRING UNDERLYING RIGHTS: You Can Participate in the Life's Blood of the Entertainment Industry

'Stanford Prison Experiment' - one of many 2015 films based on a true story.

I remember thirty years ago, after reading a provocative Calvin Trillin story in The New Yorker, that not only was it a story that would make a fabulous film, but that I had met Calvin Trillin years earlier when I had come up with the idea to have him speak at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, where I was on the Board of Directors. However, I doubted that this had endeared me to him in any special sort of way, so when I thought about obtaining underlying rights to go forward with a movie project, I contacted the principal subject of the article, not Trillin. Whether or not that was the right idea, it worked, and I was able to obtain the rights to that person’s story. Acquiring the rights involved not only a trip back East, to press the flesh and convince the person of my bona fides and character, but later also putting together a legal document the likes of which I had never even imagined, much less previously constructed.

It was not the first time I had worked from true events. Years before, when I was actually cleaning houses to support my nascent writing habit, I had walked in the front door of a suburban San Francisco home and was greeted by the lady living there with, “Here’s where I keep the vacuum cleaner and mops and stuff, and you know, my son committed suicide.” No, I hadn’t known that, but we spent the next hour and a half (off the clock) talking about it. The next time I came to clean, I made a handshake deal with her and her husband for the rights to their story. Eventually we put together a simple piece of paper between us, and I was sure I had a movie of the week (MOW). MOW’s were big at the time. Deciding against going the pitching and development route – going from producer to producer, pitching the story and hoping for a deal to get paid to write the script – I actually wrote the script on spec. It was well-received but never produced.

But as an ambitious screenwriter with a voracious newspaper and magazine reading habit, I was constantly finding ideas that I wanted. A column inch in The San Francisco Chronicle about World War II prisoners of war; two lines in a four-part article on Las Vegas in “The New Yorker” about a famous gambler; People Magazine, Esquire, the Chronicle again, then later, after moving South, the Los Angeles Times. In the beginning, I needed loads of legal help, which cost money, but with each successive document, I learned how to apply what I’d learned to the next one. Eventually I didn’t need lawyers to write the documents for me but more to review the documents for any special circumstances or egregious errors.

In the process, I learned the nuts and bolts of the industry, and how writers got paid for various types of projects, how there were different categories, different pots of money for feature films and MOW’s than for television series – where the bonuses could be had and later, the little perks that could be obtained as a WGA member. I also grew to understand where I could trade off different credits and payments with the principal whose rights I was acquiring – how to give here, and get there – and developed a feel about what was going to be important to which person.

Whenever I could (which was most of the time), I was able to get my rights for a minimal investment – sometimes as little as a dollar. (A legal contract should have some exchange) I once acquired the rights, in an age discrimination story I found in the L.A. Times, of not just the principal but his two lawyers as well. Today I feel completely comfortable going after any sort of rights, not because I know I’m going to get them (I’ve been refused many times for a variety of reasons), and not because I slept in a Holiday Inn Express the night before. I still use a lawyer to review to be sure I didn’t make a silly error that could cost me dearly or left out something important. But I have the confidence now to be undaunted in the arena of rights acquisition, and that confidence spills over into the impression I make with subject I’m approaching.

Although I was always (and continue to be) writing original work, I saw how more and more of the entertainment industry product was based on underlying material: true life stories, books, plays and articles and how holding those rights gave you a leg up when pitching or circulating a spec script. The more underlying rights I worked with, the more I realized how much the life’s blood of the industry they were. If you look around now, at Oscar time, film after film is based on underlying material: Spotlight, The Big Short, Concussion. In the Heart of the Sea, Black Mass, Woman in Gold, the list goes on. Many of the hottest television series are based on shows originally airing in foreign countries, going back to All in the Family (UK); The Killing (Denmark); and Homeland (Israel). The industry prefers material that is in some way – any way – self-promoting. The more known the product, the less work they have to do. For truly famous people and events, they are meeting the chomping-at-the-bit expectation of their audience.

Yes, the odds of my getting the rights to a best seller or a front page headline may be slim. I wasn’t going to be adapting The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; the price tag was out of my range. But there are an endless number of compelling stories – many of which can be had by the right person for the right price if you try. Most books do not become best sellers. Every story doesn’t make The New Yorker or Vanity Fair. However, that person in the checkout line in front of you just may have done two tours in Iraq. That neighbor you’re not so crazy about may have survived a harrowing childhood as the daughter of junkie bank robbers.

Truth may not always be stranger than fiction, but truth is often much more fascinating than fiction. We relate to stories because they’ve happened to other people we want to know about, because we’ve read that book, met someone like that, or had something similar happen to us. We’re a fan of that sport, or that specific team. Our ancestors came from that country. When a friend in the business approached me about doing a project based on the hit Chicago play, Bleacher Bums, it was an almost perfect fit. I’m from Chicago. I’d grown up living with the emotional disappointment only Cubs fans can know. Some of the writers of the original play, and the holders of the rights to it, were personal friends of mine. And because it had been a success here in Los Angeles as well, my partner and I were able to sell it in the pitch room, before we even sat down for the meeting. “I saw that play,” our buyer said. “It’s funny. I’ll buy that.” BOOM! Can you spell, “Showtime Original Movie”?

So, that paperback you’re currently reading, the one you paid a dime for at that garage sale down the street. You think it’s great? Good. The rights just may be available, and you could be the person who adapts it for a film or TV series.

Don't miss Mitchell's new webinar at The Writers Store:
Acquiring Underlying Rights – The Nuts and Bolts of Locating, Negotiating for, and Acquiring the Rights to True Life Stories, Books, Plays, Newspapers and Magazine Articles



At a Glance:

  • This webinar is for anyone who has found that true story, that book, play, article, etc. and wants to know what to do next.
  • Discover and learn how to become comfortable with the entire process – from initial contact to signed contract.
  • Give yourself a leg up on submitting material and finding success in the entertainment industry.