Q: I saw a really cool short at a film school festival, and I acquired the right to remake it as a feature from the guys who made it. I later found out that the short film was based on a 1990 short story written by an obscure writer from Georgia. The filmmakers showed me a one-page agreement with the writer. The agreement gives them permission to make “one short film based on the Story” and the writer of the short story keeps all other rights. Since the filmmakers had the right to make their short and gave me the right to remake it, I should be ok without anything from the short story writer, shouldn’t I?
A: Unfortunately, no. While the filmmakers appear to have had the rights necessary to make their short film, it sounds like their right was limited to only making that one short. They did not have the right to make, or authorize others to make, a feature film. While you are indeed using the short primarily as the basis for your feature, because that short is based on the writer’s story, your feature will also be based on the writer’s story. Therefore, in order to make your feature, you need two sets of rights: (1) remake rights from the owners of the short film and (2) feature film rights from the author of the short story. It looks like you’ve already accomplished number one (but see below for possible bad news). Now it appears that you’ll have to scour the Georgia countryside looking for the obscure writer.
It should be noted that the complication in this case is because of the limited rights obtained by the short filmmakers. If they had instead acquired all motion picture rights in the short story, including the right to make features based on the short, and had the right to assign such rights, you may have been okay simply obtaining rights from the short filmmakers.
By the way, there is something else you need to consider that is unique to short films made by film school students. Make sure the filmmakers actually own the rights to their short. A film school project might actually be owned by the film school. If this is the case here, you would need to get the remake rights from the school. Of course, if your idea of a good time is losing a court case and all your money, you can always go ahead without the rights and get the title of your movie in the headlines alongside The Dukes of Hazzard and Watchmen.
This blog was originally published as part of Legal Ease, Film Independent’s weekly column on legal matters pertaining to the entertainment industry. To see other LEGAL EASE columns please click here.