Cinema Law: Screenwriter Rights

Welcome to “Cinema Law,” MovieMaker.com’s all-new blog where you ask the questions of our resident team of legal experts and, each week, they’ll provide the answers to your production queries. Cinema Law is presented as general information only and is not meant to take the place of professional legal advice.

Q: When a writer sells the rights to his script to a production company, I understand that the writer no longer has the right to option his script to other production companies, even if he receives a better offer. That being said, does the writer lose all creative control once he signs his name on the dotted line? Can the production company go ahead and hire whatever director it wants and even change the entire tone of the script without the writer’s approval? Basically, what say does the writer have in a project once his script is sold?

A: The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that, in film, the director creates his “vision,” but the writers are expendable and easily replaceable. As a result, if you are lucky enough to sell your script, the studio or production company can do whatever it wants with it.

When you sell your script, what you are really selling is the copyright to your creation (or, at the very least, the right to make audiovisual works derived from your script). Copyright vests the author of a work of expression (i.e., you) with the exclusive rights to do a number of things with his work, including the exclusive right to make other creations “derived from” the work (e.g., films). In other words, when you write a script, only you have the right to turn it into a movie. Of course, you probably do not have the money necessary to produce and distribute a feature film, so you must sell that right to a producer or studio that can. And no studio will buy that right without making sure it can make whatever movie it wants out of your script.

When a writer sells the rights to his script to a production company, I understand that the writer no longer has the right to option his script to other production companies, even if he receives a better offer.

Correct. The production company will most likely acquire an option on your script, which is the exclusive right to purchase it outright, at a set price, within a certain time frame. Until the option expires, you cannot sell your script to someone else even if you receive a better offer.

That being said, does the writer lose all creative control once he signs his name on the dotted line?

Usually, yes, because there is a difference between selling a literary property to a studio and being hired by that studio to work as a writer on the film. Once you sell the rights to your script, the studio owns it and can do what it wants with it. That will include hiring a screenwriter or screenwriters to write redrafts. If you are a professional screenwriter, the studio may (but is not obligated to) hire you to write another draft of the screenplay. The studio will own that second draft and all subsequent drafts outright, since they will be created as “works for hire” for the studio. If you are hired as a writer, the good news is that you will get more control over your script, and you will get paid for your writing services. The bad news is that the studio can—and often will—hire more writers after you in order to get the script it wants.

Can the production company go ahead and hire whatever director it wants and even change the entire tone of the script without the writer’s approval?

Yes. Unless you have considerable clout, you will have zero say in crew or casting decisions.

Regarding changing the tone of the script, remember that you are selling the right to make an audiovisual work derived from your work. The studio, as purchaser of that right, may change your original script any way it sees fit. As a current example (out of thousands), consider the recent film The Blind Side starring Sandra Bullock. The film is a sentimental, feel-good tale of a poor youth being taken in by a rich family and “making it” through football. It is based on the best-selling nonfiction book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by journalist Michael Lewis (author of Moneyball and Liar’s Poker), a hard-hitting, journalistic account of the evolution of modern football from passing offenses and pass-rushing defenses to the cutthroat world of college recruiting. The tone of the film could hardly be more different from that of the book, but Warner Bros. paid Michael Lewis handsomely for the right to take whatever tone it wanted.

Basically, what say does the writer have in a project once his script is sold?

Little to none, unless you are hired as a writer on the film, and even then, not much unless you have serious clout. But that’s the business. Truly, you are one of the lucky ones to have sold a script at all.

Chad Fitzgerald, an attorney at Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert, a high-profile, L.A.-based entertainment litigation firm, specializes in entertainment and business litigation as well as transactional matters for entertainment industry clients. He has represented actors, musicians, professional athletes and production and distribution entities, as well as clients in the toy, apparel, yoga and diamond industries, entertainment guilds, personal and business managers, and talent agents and agencies in disputes in California and federal courts as well as before the California Labor Commissioner and the guilds. Mr. Fitzgerald handles contract, profit participation, financing, distribution, copyright and trademark disputes in the entertainment industry as well as business litigation matters involving contracts, sales, employment, partnership and franchise disputes, fraud, trade secrets, rights of privacy and defamation. He also negotiates agreements for intellectual property rights holders, entertainment industry executives, producers and independent filmmakers.

The answers to legal questions provided by the lawyers of Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert, LLP (“KWIKA”) are for general education and information purposes only, and are not legal advice or legal opinions. The information provided in the articles is not intended to create a lawyer-client relationship between KWIKA and you. The opinions expressed in the postings are the opinions of the authors and do not reflect the opinions of KWIKA, its employees or agents. MM

1 Comment

  1. seyed ebrahim ahmadpanah

    December 5, 2017 at 10:38 pm

    I am author and screenwriter, translator, photographer and interested in film and serial production.
    I have written seven books. I have edited three books. Three books out of seven books are written in scripts .written in seventy-eight solar years to eighty-six solar. I’ve created an animation work. I have read literature at the high school and have a literature diploma.
    I have received two bachelor s degree in law and political science at the university. I was in love with writing from my teens. I sent articles to the newspaper.
    The name of some of my books is one: two sets of screenwriting, a set of screenplay by a cinema lover.
    Two: Johnny Script- assassin -Nights of Ashes
    Three: Miracle of Thought, Positive Thoughts of Happy Life
    Four: The miracle of laughter
    In the process of submitting a request for a script or animation from a film making company, the supplier is provided. After reviewing and submitting the company’s response if need to be changed and added. Then it is negotiated to determine the wage for assigning the copyright. On the condition that my name is written as a writer or scriptwriter in the title, and at each stage of the filmmaking or animation, based on the law of intellectual property, money is earned in the provision of additional material salaries to the original salary of the writer. Your job as a job searcher is to send my request and terms as a writer and scriptwriter described in these lines, to a producer, sponsor, making film and animation.
    I wish my stories and screenplays and, if I could, my books would be translated into other languages, especially films and animations, from my stories and scripts.
    All those who can help the publisher, the sponsor, etc. in this way takes my hand.
    Best wishes.
    Seyed

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