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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Q. One of my screenplays is set during a political and news-covered movement. The story is fictional as are the characters and their plot in this story.

However, certain events in the story did occur in true life. For example municipal, provincial and supreme court involvement with a political action which is all public record. Also police actions and political group actions which are not public record - are seen throughout this part of the script. The story is about fictional characters living out their plot around and during these real life events.

I am using the accurate dates to reflect the times of the Supreme Court hearings and the public record events, but do I use their names? (the judge the prominent lawyer?) These people are not characters in the script, although they are relevant to the story line and to the setting.

Another example within the story is a bank manager who exhorts money. I use the name of an actual Bank to suit the setting - although no such extortion ever happened there in real life. Is there jeopardy for using the Bank's name within a film that has in part some true life events?
This is tricky ground. I'm not a lawyer, but I know that you would not, for example, use a real bank's name, because you are saying that some of their bank managers are corrupt. That tends to bring them into disrepute, and they will sue. (Actually the insurer's Errors and Omissions lawyers will tell you to change the bank name before it gets that far.)

On the other hand, you can refer to real events that happened in the past. You can make a movie about a bunch of kids going to Woodstock, or going on the various Marches on Washington, or getting into trouble at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, and you can probably show Mayor Daley saying "I'm going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot," 'cause he's a political figure (not a private person) and it's well enough documented that he said that.

Ordinary people have rights of privacy and reputation. You can't put me in your movie without my permission. Public figures have little right of privacy but you still aren't allowed slander them. In other words you can make a movie about Nixon, but it better all be true. Dead people have very few rights. If you notice in the movie BACKBEAT, only John Lennon and Stu Sutcliffe do nasty things. They're dead and can't sue. Paul and George and Ringo are sort of genial people. Either McCartney approved the script, or the film's lawyers decided that there was nothing for him to sue about, since he's a public figure (appearing onstage in front of hundreds of thousands of fans will do that) and the movie didn't say anything nasty about him. You can make a movie about Marilyn Monroe and Jack and Robert Kennedy, and you're probably on safe ground.

I say "probably" because there are other rights, like likeness rights, and brands and trademarks, which I don't begin to understand. And even movie stars have some privacy rights. I wouldn't try making a movie about Brad and Angelina and Jennifer, at least until they're all dead. In general, as I understand it, you're on safe ground so long as you stick to events that appear in the newspaper and in books and in court documents (anything said in court is part of the public record), so long as you make up fictional individuals and corporations to populate them.



A bit of my journalism background says that this kind of thing is what rumors are founded upon. The problem is: does the script separate real life events with fictional ones? Even then, things can be misinterpreted.

It shouldn't be a problem making up a fictional bank, as long as it seems realistic. Even with some history put into it, it's still your world to build.

By Blogger SeanM, at 1:58 AM  

It seems like if it's based on a true story that you ought to be able to get away with naming corporations involved. After all, I'm sure CBS and the tobacco companies didn't enjoy being portrayed as corrupt in The Insider, but it doesn't seem like they were able to do much about it. Even if they have legal remedies, I'm guessing exercising them would make the companies look even worse.

But yeah, the E&O guys can tell you best. You can always change things when it gets to that point.

By Blogger Seth, at 8:39 PM  

There are so many issues here -- take a look at a great book on copyright law and fair use, etc., "Clearance and Copyright," written by an expert in entertainment law, Michael Donaldson. It's an update of earlier editions and discusses fair use extensively. It's full of useful information and is very easy to read (it's used in more than 50 film schools and is kind of the standard reference book for the industry). It's a must read for all filmmakers.

By Blogger Liz, at 8:06 PM  

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