RARA-AVIS: rights to characters, etc.

From: Frederick Zackel (fzackel@wcnet.org)
Date: 04 Sep 2010

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    Rough rule of thumb:

    If you wrote the book, the mibnute it is published, you own the rights to your characters forever (or the end of copyright laws, which is close to forever.) Once it's made into a movie, you do not get royalties.

    If you wrote only the script (even a spec script) the studio or production company that buys it owns the characters forever (etc.) If you wrote the script, however, you do get royalties every time it plays on television.

    Yes, exceptions apply, depending how much clout you have. (All deals subject to finagling. And the best finaglers get the best deals. Anything can be negotiated.) But the best thing to do is to write both the book and then the script. Then you keep your character rights and you get royalties.

    As I understand it, the movie, V.I. Warshawski, with Kathleen Turner in the title role, which took many creative liberties with Sara Paretsky's character, was meant as a franchise for Turner, but those plans were scrapped when it was not a commercial success, grossing only $11.1 million domestically. Story goes that Sara P. sold the movie rights for 1 million up front. Nobody will ever make another movie with that character.

    Most writers of series characters refuse to sell their characters to studios, preferring to write stand-alones every once in a while in order to get some movie money. Robert Crais, for instance, wrote HOSTAGE. It became a Bruce Willis movie. You will never see Elvis Cole or Joe Pike on the screen.

    After you're dead, all bets are off. Travis McGee, for instance. The family gets hungry, hey, the old man is dead, what the hell ...

    Decades ago I interviewed Elmore Leonard for Dictionary of Literary Biography (something like that.) Dutch early on had H. N. Swanson as his Hollywood agent, who convinced him NEVER EVER write two books with the same character. Leonard was in the midst of one of his Detroit books, went back through the manuscript and changed the name of the main character. However he missed one, and to this day the character's name is the main character's name from the previous book.

    Dutch did make an exception with the GET SHORTY character who reappeared in BE COOL. But all that was (sort of) pre-arranged with a movie production studio ahead of time.

    I have heard rumors that some Hollywood scribes are Kindle-ing their stories first before offering them to studios, thus ensuring that they have the publication copyrights to the characters & the stories. I cannot confirm that.

    At this point, I can only add the most fun I ever had in Hollywood was sitting around a deli in the morning listening to other writers talking about deal-making (i.e., who got shafted and who shafted the bastards.)

    Best wishes,

    Fred Zackel

    & now THE BLONDE IN THE RED CORVETTE All (and more) are available on Kindle and smashwords


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