So you have a friend who shot her lover’s wife. And your friend would like to know the legal ins and outs of selling her lurid story to Hollywood for really big bucks. A few tips:
First of all, if a producer wants to film the story without paying your pal, he or she had better be careful. A true-crime tale must be based on accurately reported material — such as interviews, newspaper clippings, and court records. Also, any information that may be potentially libelous to someone involved in the story must be backed up; in other words, the script can’t have your friend calling her lover an adulterous pedophile unless your friend’s lawyer can prove it, or show that there were good sources for the information.
So rather than worry about transgressing these pesky rules, a producer might want to go ahead and buy your friend’s story. Given the current marketplace, the rights could cost up to $400,000 — expensive, maybe, but the producer’s advantage is access to information that the competition won’t be able to get. More important, the producer will have some dandy insurance. Once your friend signs the deal, she may have the money, but the producer has a lot of leeway in telling her side of the story. With movie consent agreements, says Los Angeles entertainment attorney Fred Leopold, ”you not only buy their rights — you buy the right to fictionalize their life.”
But before your friend starts planning her trip around the world, a warning: The federal government and more than 40 states have a rule on the books based on New York State’s 1977 ”Son of Sam” law, named for a serial killer who peddled his tale. The New York law ensured that anything that convicted criminals earned from telling their story would go to their victims’ families. The Supreme Court struck down that version early this year. However, a recently enacted revision to the New York law (which other states will probably follow) allows your friend to dish for cash, while making it easier for her lover’s wife to sue for and collect damages — and potentially grab all your friend’s profits. Which is a brand-new wrinkle on the old adage ”crime doesn’t pay.”