Sunday, February 08, 2015

A Cautionary Tale About Movie Contracts

When I was an unpublished writer, I went to a fair number of conferences, hoping for insights about how to find a publisher. To tell the truth, I was a little shocked by the number of writers bemoaning their contracts. At that time, I wanted to say, “But at least you have a contract. That’s something isn’t it?”. The other thing I never had the nerve to say was “But you read it, didn’t you? You knew what you were getting into.” How na├»ve I was.

Over the years, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read blogs and articles about the lousy contracts writers find themselves tied to. These days, there are plenty of bloggers explaining why today’s contracts are terrible, and why you shouldn’t sign at all. I don’t agree with some of their assessments, but when established, well-known authors get tripped up, I take notice.

This week I came across a blog by Tess Gerritsen, author of the terrific Rizzoli & Isles thrillers. Did you know that she is also the author of Gravity, the movie starring Sandra Bullock?

When the Bloody Words Conference came to Victoria in June 2011, Ms. Gerritsen was one of the keynote speakers. She was very candid about her publishing experiences, and she is again, as she discusses why she’s suing Warner Bros. over Gravity. You can read the details in her blog, but here it is in a nutshell.

In 1999, she told the film rights to Gravity to New Line Productions. The movie never got past the development stage, and New Line was later acquired by Warner Bros in 2008. After the movie was made, but Ms. Gerritsen wasn’t given credit as was stipulated in her contract. Ms. Gerritsen has since learned through round one in court that if the company you sign a contract with is sold to somebody else, along with the intellectual properties, then the new owner has no legal obligation to honour the contract either through acknowledgement or financial compensation of the author’s work. In fact, the new owner can exploit the script however they choose. As Ms. Gerritsen puts it, Hollywood contracts would very well be worthless.

The judge in the round one of her court battle did open the door for Ms. Gerritsen to file an amended complaint which will further examine the relationship between New Line and Warner Bros. This is important because, based on what she says, a writer for Warner Bros. had come up with a nearly identical script which he claimed as his own. Ms. Gerritsen, though, has apparently uncovered a relationship between New Line and Warner Bros. that went back as far as 2000. Hmm.

The bottom line is that contracts can be a slippery slope, folks, particularly if you’re dealing with the movie industry. Writers not only have to consider what is, but what might happen down the road. It’s always a good idea to have experienced lawyers or representatives from established writers’ organizations take a look at your contract before you sign.

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