Should I Get Paid For My Memoir If It's Made Into A Documentary?

by Gail Duguay
(P.E.I. canada)

Question: I have written my Memoir, Gail Of Wind A Hard Walk Into Reality, and it is selling very well. Now a filmmaker wants to to a documentary on it. Should I be getting paid for it?

Desktop Documentaries | Answer

Hi there Gail. First of all, congratulations that your memoir is selling so well! That is a huge accomplishment!!

To answer your question, it's almost the other way around as far as payment. To make a documentary takes a huge amount of time and work (just like a book or memoir!). Plus a filmmaker has the additional cost of buying all the equipment and training.

Often a filmmaker must work for free or try really hard to raise money to pay to get the film made. Documentaries rarely make a profit, so filmmakers often must rely on the generosity of supporters to make donations and give grants. (Fundraising is a LOT of work and will often derail the best of filmmaking intentions)

Think of it this way. If someone did a documentary on you (your memoir), imagine the amazing publicity you'll get. You have the potential to sell even MORE books. So it is in fact to your great advantage for someone to do a documentary on you. You should be doing everything you can to support and encourage this filmmaker (assuming you trust this person). The quickest way to discourage them is to ask for payment.

Keep in mind, I am a filmmaker, not a lawyer. So my answer is based on personal experience only.

With that said, I suggest creating a simple MOU agreement giving them a year (or whatever time feels seems right to you) to make the film or get funding. That gives them peace of mind that another filmmaker isn't going to scoop the story after they do all the work. That's called an "option". If you like, you could also include some language in the contract that states if the documentary becomes a massive success that you get a percentage of the profits.

A feature film is a different story because that's usually a "for profit" endeavor. I suggest getting help from an entertainment lawyer if that ever becomes the case. Yes, usually for a feature film the filmmaker will buy the story rights from you.

We submitted your question to Washington-based entertainment/sports attorney Jaia Thomas and here's her response:

Law Office of Jaia Thomas | Answer

Yes, you should be compensated for a film adaptation of your memoir. Ordinarily a filmmaker will option the rights to his or her book, novel, memoir, manuscript.

An option is defined as “the exclusive right, obtained for a fee to buy or sell something with a specified time at a specified price.” Film producers generally use an option as an inexpensive way to control a piece of literary material during the time in which they are further developing the property (for instance, Screenwriter Danny Strong recently optioned the rights to the biography, “Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson’ by Wil Haygood).

Generally the option price is 10% of the final purchase price and the final purchase price of a memoir ranges (depending on several factors). However, the general rule of thumb is that literary rights are sold for 2-5% of the total film budget. Even if the filmmaker is under tight budgetary constraints and cannot afford to pay an option or the rights outright, I would still recommend some form of compensation, even if it’s a small percentage of profits.

Jaia ThomasAbout Jaia Thomas

The Law Office of Jaia Thomas counsels entertainment professionals and athletes in areas of intellectual property, corporate transactions and new media.

Phone: 202.643.0689

Comments for Should I Get Paid For My Memoir If It's Made Into A Documentary?

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Mar 22, 2012
MOUs Work Well
by: Scott

Unless the profit you are figuring to make from the documentary is sizable (only you can determine this), I would go with a Memorandum of Understanding. MOUs are great. They have a legal sounding name and they are essentially a paper handshake. All you need to do is sit down with the filmmaker, work out the details and sign it. The details are up to you. An MOU can be as simple as "Party A will receive 10% of all earnings based of the sell of Product X." Contracts are only as good as the people that sign them. Contracts are broken all the time. If you want to hire lawyers because the profits are just to big to be mismanaged if someone fails to meet their end of the agreement you can and should do that. If this is essentially a deal between you and the film maker, based on what I know, I think an MOU will help you both understand each others expectations and that fact alone will save you countless hours of angst.

Mar 21, 2012
one more thing
by: Desktop Documentaries

To add one more thought here.. negotiations with story rights really depend on a number of factors including the popularity of your memoir and the experience level of the filmmaker.

Is there competition to turn your memoir into a film?

How much experience does the filmmaker have?

Does the filmmaker have a history of creating profitable films?

There is no cookie-cutter solution here. It really depends on the circumstances and the people involved.

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