Scooped! How to Stay Ahead of the Storytelling Game
by Roy Freirich
For writers, there’s always the danger of getting “scooped”—spending months developing something only to read about someone way ahead of you. So (my co-writer wife and) I check everywhere to research the status of life-rights stories and other authors’ novels that interest us for adapting, and generally for projects with similar themes.
For projects based on a person’s life, the more famous the subject, the more competition you’ll face acquiring rights. On the other hand, if the person is really famous and a public figure, you may not need to acquire anything—but will be up against some giants. Think Spielberg’s Lincoln, before you decide to write Abe! Either way, the more you know about ongoing competing projects or those who have dared before you, the bigger the bullet you may dodge.
For novels to adapt for the screen or stage, rights are essential, and pricey for “buzzy” titles. The other hand here: no one needs rights to adapt Jane Austen’s novels—but the bar is very high for success, because greats have gone before: Think Emma Thompson (Sense and Sensibility) or Paul Gordon (Emma).
Thankfully, there are ways to track what may be out there waiting to steal your thunder:
- Internet Movie Database is hugely helpful. Here production companies announce their projects early, if only to discourage competing projects.
- Deadline Hollywood, the film industry trade website of choice, often announces even earlier, driven by their own mandate to get the news out first, and “scoop” everyone else.
- Google news alerts can help and require only a few clicks to set up. Google it!
- Agents or managers, of course, often have their own “spy network” to check around for others pursuing something similar.
- Publishers can always be contacted directly with an old-school email or even a phone call to see if subsidiary rights to a biography or novel have been optioned or bought.
- Author websites often list contact information. Think carefully, though. If you engage with them but do not reach a deal for the right to adapt their work, they may feel aggrieved if you go ahead with anything remotely similar. As “gray areas” go, this one is especially murky.
- The U.S. copyright office will often, but not always, show the disposition of rights. It’s a free search, and no reason why not. For clarity, here’s this, from Copyright.gov, the official website:
“Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.”
And there’s the rub—that last bit: “Ideas?” Does that mean go ahead with your idea because ideas don’t infringe? I refuse to answer—on the grounds that I’m not a copyright attorney.
Sometimes, you do your research. The coast looks clear. You’ve found the novel that hasn’t been bought or the person whose story hasn’t been told in a movie or TV series or on the stage. You outline, you bake a treatment, you start writing. You wake in the mornings enthused and with a keen sense of purpose, because, yes, you’ve “scooped” everyone else!
Or… not. So we mourn the months spent working on a Jean Seberg biopic (now starring Kristen Stewart!), a Phyllis Schafly story (Cate Blanchett!), or another about a crusader against revenge pornography. Sometimes, a major theater venue will hire you to adapt an Anne Rice novel into a musical, but along the way, the rights revert from theater back to author, and director Tom Ford snaps them up for a movie. There are few authors more encouraging and generous than Anne Rice, but a Tom Ford movie is understandably hard to resist. Yes, there have been rending of garments and gnashing of teeth.
In terms of my own original fiction, I’ve had to put a novel in a drawer for more than a year and wait to see if competing projects gained traction or faded. And “competing” is a very broad rubric indeed. A book editor or film exec might say “another book about stolen nuclear weapons?” and so you put yours aside, only to later read about yet another massive deal to acquire a project on the subject.
In the worst way of all, reality “scooped” me on my first 2008 novel Winged Creatures, about survivors of a mass shooting, when these events began to occur seemingly weekly. Hollywood is never far behind, and mass shootings became suspenseful plot points in TV shows and books, in ways that felt increasingly exploitative, and less and less edifying about the real, lasting costs to victims and their families. At this point, I just don’t feel right earning anything for a novel about fictional survivors’ stories when there are so many real ones now, so I’m donating all royalties to The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Do writers of pandemic novels feel like COVID-19 will give their books new life, or are they too close to home now? When it is too soon to tackle a subject? When it is too late?
In general, it’s a needle to thread: being vigilant so as not to waste months and then get beaten to the story—vs. living in fear and hesitating to dive into something great.
Roy Freirich leads multiple lives as a writer — of lyrics, movies, and novels. His lyrics have been sung by legends Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, and Patti Labelle, among many others. He’s written screenplays for Fox Searchlight, Dreamworks, Warner Brothers, and Sony, and adapted his novel, “Winged Creatures,” for the film, “Fragments,” featuring Forest Whitaker, Dakota Fanning, Guy Pearce, Josh Hutcherson, and Kate Beckinsale. He has also served as editor for the national desk of The New York Times and for the renowned Beloit Poetry Journal. He lives with his wife, ever-patient editor, and frequent co-writer, Debrah, in Malibu, California. Together, they’ve written the libretto for a musical adaptation of Anne Rice’s “Cry to Heaven,” for Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre. Visit him online at www.royfreirich.com.