Darlow Smithson Productions EP and chief executive John Smithson reveals some tips on how to secure rights for that project you just have to make… before someone else does.
We call it rights-stalking. It’s the obsessive, time-consuming, expensive and sometimes futile search for story rights that you hope will lead to a prime commission.
It’s not for the faint of heart; you have to be sure that buying the rights does lock up the story and that no one else can find a cunning way of beating you with material in the public domain. You might have to risk your own money on the option payment, unless you can persuade your broadcaster to share your pain.
You need both belief and patience – there’s no point chasing the story if you’re not absolutely sure you can get a commission. And you’ve got to be prepared to be in it for the long haul. When we agreed with the BBC that making a new version of the iconic Diary of Anne Frank was a great idea, it took us more than two years to negotiate through a complex legal minefield and secure the rights. However, we always knew that if we could get the diary, we could make this scripted production happen. France 2 quickly came on board as a major coproducer and PBS picked up the U.S. rights.
Patience was certainly rewarded when Aron Ralston approached me with his amazing story of survival in a remote Utah Canyon, which is portrayed in the upcoming feature film, 127 Hours. Having seen and loved our film Touching the Void, Ralston started conversations with us in 2004, rather than with the hundreds of other companies that had contacted him. It took two years to get the rights fully secured and another four years before Danny Boyle came on board, wanting this to be his next film after the Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire. Now, 127 Hours has just been released in the U.S. and will open in the UK in January.
So how do you spot the stories to stalk? Sometimes it’s obvious, and sometimes it’s instinct. Sadly, spotting the story is only just the beginning -there are plenty of roadblocks in the way from that point. Often a great Vanity Fair or New Yorker piece will have been optioned by Hollywood before you even read the magazine. And then the story can be off the market for years.
Sometimes Hollywood money will obliterate your modest TV-realistic offer. This happened to us recently when a best-selling non-fiction writer simply could not refuse the L.A. cash mountain… even though he loved our approach.
However, money does not always talk the loudest. I’m sure Aron Ralston could have got a much bigger deal – some major players were after his story. But in the end it was about a relationship. Often in true stories, which have had a searing impact on their subjects, it’s how you will portray their life-defining experiences that makes the difference, rather than dollars and cents.
Sometimes you can be smart and only option the rights you need. Just buy the doc or drama doc rights and leave the movie rights for the big money. Movies are apparently in the pipeline for both Touching the Void and Anne Frank, but we got there first.
Another smart tactic is to track stories coming out of option. Many stories that are optioned never get made. Touching the Void had been locked away for years and was even seen as a film for Tom Cruise, but Sue Summers, my fellow stalker on this film, discovered that the rights were coming free. We pounced.
It can sometimes be tricky dealing with the lawyer or agent of your rights holder. Do whatever you can to keep them on side. Be realistic about the money you are likely to have. It’s much better to be straight than to over-hype. Be careful about making them feel you’re going behind their backs. Your strongest card might be to give confidence that your project will happen. They may sell the option for big bucks, but if the project never happens that’s all they will get. If your project happens, even at a quarter of the option price, it can ultimately be worth more to them.
Polite persistence with a dash of reckless optimism might win the day. And it’s worth it.