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From The Founder: “How Do I Get The Stage Rights To A Book/Movie/Play, etc?”

When I was a Company Manager, I used to tell my assistants that if we ever got the same question from more than two company members, we hadn’t done our job.  If more than two people asked what time our flight was to the next city, or asked us to explain their paychecks to them, then we hadn’t anticipated the needs of our company or communicated information that was important to them fast enough.

I believe this is a great way to measure your success as a manager.  No questions?  Nice job.

Using that definition of my job as a blogger, I have failed you.

I have been asked a few times recently how to go about obtaining the rights to a book or movie or play, etc. in order to turn that property into a Broadway show.

The good news?  It’s easy to ask for the rights.  The bad news is that it’s harder to get an answer.

Sometimes it’s hard just figuring out where to start.  Here are a few tips, classified by the type of property you are going after.

BOOK

  • Find the Publisher of the book (look at the first few inside pages) and call them.  Most publishing companies will have entire departments dedicated to rights.  I find that I get the quickest answers on the availability of rights from publishers (probably because disposition of rights is such a large source of their revenue).  If they can’t give you a straight answer, they should be able to tell you the agent for the author and you can contact the agent directly.  They may ask for something in writing (see below).

MOVIE

  • The first question is to find out if the movie is an original or if it was based on earlier work.  If it was based on a book or short story or a note jotted on a napkin, go after the original author first before approaching the movie company.  Odds are that you are going to have to go to the movie company anyway, but you’re much more likely to get a response (and a positive one) from the person who has the most invested in the project (the original author), rather than someone in the legal department of a billion-dollar conglomerate.  You can get the original author on your side, find out more info about what rights the movie company actually owns, and develop a strategy from there.
  • If it’s an original screenplay, then you are definitely going to have to approach the movie company.  You can also approach the author of the screenplay at the same time, using the same theory as the above, but if the script was written for MGM, then expect MGM to hold most of the cards.  Movie companies get a ton of rights requests (for clips, etc.) so they will always want something in writing.  Call the company and find out to whom to send the request.  Send it, and then follow up with a phone call.  Then wait and wait.  And keep following up.  I once got a response months later via the mail.  I mean, they couldn’t just send an email?

PLAY

  • Theater writers always own their material, as opposed to screenwriters who have to sell their soul to the mighty movie companies.  Therefore, seek out the author directly, through the Dramatists Guild (if they are a member) or their agent, or by visiting Angus.

OTHER MEDIUMS

  • All of the above principles can be applied to other mediums as well, from optioning websites to television shows to clothing lines.  Most people have agents or lawyers or production companies that you can track down through Google.  If at all possible, get to the person, not the agent.

 

Another related question I get is “Should I have a lawyer make this inquiry for me?”  Lawyers can make you seem more “serious” or “official”, especially if you lack credits.  Lawyers can also get you a speedier response if you hire a firm that does business with these agents or movie companies all the time.  The downside is that lawyers cost bucks.  Beacoup de bucks.  So, I often advise people on limited budgets to make the request yourself first (do yourself a favor and make up some good-looking fax stationery with a logo and a production company name).  If you don’t get a response, you can always go the lawyer route later.

This process is really easier than it seems.  The key to it is to just start.  Summon up some Oliver-like courage and just ask for what you want.  Always thought your favorite book would make a great movie?  Musical?  Greeting card?  Ask.  It literally can take as little as 15 minutes to get the request off.  Just by asking the question, you’ve started the ball rolling down the hill of getting your show done.

If they aren’t available, you can move on to the next project, and stop saying, “The Alienist would make such a good film!” (I just found out that Scott Rudin has been sitting on the rights.  Scott, if you are reading (or if your assistant is reading this for you), I’ll take those rights – name your price.)

And, you can keep asking for them.  I sent one request per year for five years before I got the rights to Somewhere In Time.  Put a reminder in your Outlook to ask every year at the same time. 

Don’t give up until you get the rights or they take out a restraining order against you.

And then form a dummy corporation under another name and ask again.

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