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What does it mean to buy the rights to a life story?

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Posted at 9:40 AM, Mar 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-11 09:40:04-05

Hollywood loves a "true story,” from glitzy biopics about iconic musicians to buzzy dramas based on real-life scandals.

But those true stories can come at a cost.

"Having the life rights is really a legal protection more than anything," filmmaker Johnny Lin said.

You can think of it as almost like an insurance policy," said Shaliz Sadig Romano, entertainment lawyer and co-managing partner at Romano Law.

Life story rights are a bundle of releases and permissions that studios can acquire when they want to tell a story about a real person, but technically, legal experts say that life story rights aren't an absolute requirement.

No one needs life story rights to do a movie about anybody," said Bryan Sullivan, entertainment lawyer and founding partner at Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae.

But buying the life story rights from someone guarantees they won't sue studios for defamation, invasion of privacy or publicity rights.

At the same time, life rights can come with exclusive access. 

"You're often getting cooperation," Romano said.

It could include access to diaries, emails, documents, and all sorts of other information," Sullivan said.

"You really have the legitimacy of telling a story," Lin said.

Netflix reportedly paid Anna Sorokin, "a New York City con artist who pretended to be a German heiress,” $320,000 for the exclusive rights to her life story.

That story became "Inventing Anna," one of the platform's most-watched series last month.   

It would be imperative that they get actual access to her and exclusive access, so that she doesn't go around telling her story to everybody else, undercutting the value of the rights," Sullivan said.

The real-life Sorokin was found guilty of grand larceny in 2019, and because criminals aren't allowed to profit off their crimes, the money from Netflix was mostly used to pay back banks and settle fines.

But that raises the question: How much are life story rights worth?  

"It's kind of arbitrary to be really honest," Lin said.

"There is no math to this," Sullivan said. "It is an art form about what they're willing to take."

"It's actually how many bidders you have and how exposed a story is," Romano said.

Experts say life story rights typically made up 2 to 5% of a budget, but the rise of streaming is making the market a little more competitive and upping the price for high-profile stories.  

If the cost is too high, studios may instead start weighing the risk. 

"There have been cases where an individual sued a production company or studio, and they lost, and the film was allowed to move forward and there was never a penny paid for those life rights," Romano said.

Movies like "The Hurt Locker" or "Hustlers" led to defamation lawsuits from people who claimed they were portrayed in negative light.  

Both of those cases were dropped because the stories were already known, the films didn't use real names or likenesses in their adaptations and, especially for public figures, defamation is difficult to prove.

In a similar way, Hulu's "Pam and Tommy" tells the story about the theft of the sex tape of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, but the series didn't have permission from Anderson to tell her story.

That's because filmmakers can argue it was already so public.

"Policies are in place in favor of that," Romano said. "We want to be able to ... tell stories and to share art."

  

Anderson is now working on her own documentary with Netflix to share her story from her actual perspective.

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