Some studios buy the rights to someone’s story for their projects while others choose to take creative liberties without input from the subject.
Hollywood loves a “true story” — from glitzy biopics about iconic musicians to buzzy dramas based on real-life scandals.
But these true stories can come at a cost.
“Having the right to life is really legal protection more than anything,” said filmmaker Johnny Lin.
“You can almost see it as an insurance policy,” said Shaliz Sadig Romano, entertainment attorney and co-director at Romano Law.
Life Story Rights are a set of releases and permissions that studios can acquire when they want to tell a story about a real person, but technically legal experts say Life Story Rights are only not an absolute requirement.
“Nobody needs the life story rights to make a movie about anybody,” said Bryan Sullivan, entertainment attorney and founding partner of Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae.
But buying the rights to the life story from someone guarantees they won’t sue the studios for defamation, invasion of privacy, or publicity rights.
At the same time, lifetime rights can come with exclusive access.
“You often get cooperation,” Romano said.
“That could include access to logs, emails, documents, and all sorts of other information,” Sullivan said.
“You really have the legitimacy to tell a story,” Lin said.
Netflix reportedly paid Anna Sorokin – a New York con artist who claimed to be a German heiress – $320,000 for the exclusive rights to her life story. This story became “Inventing Anna”, one of the most watched series on the platform last month.
“It would be imperative that they have real access to her and exclusive access, so that she doesn’t tell her story to everyone, which would undermine the value of the rights,” Sullivan said.
The real Sorokin was convicted of grand larceny in 2019, and since criminals aren’t allowed to profit from their crimes, Netflix money was mostly used to repay banks and pay fines.
But that begs the question: How much are life story rights worth?
“It’s kind of arbitrary to be really honest,” Lin said.
“There’s no math to that,” Sullivan said. “It’s an art form about what they’re willing to take.”
“It’s really how many bidders you have and how a story is exposed,” Romano said.
Experts say rights to life stories typically made up 2-5% of a budget, but the rise of streaming is making the market a bit more competitive and driving up the price of high-profile stories.
If the cost is too high, studios can start weighing the risks instead.
“There have been cases where an individual sued a production company or a studio, and they lost, and the movie was allowed to go ahead and there was never a dime paid for those lifetime rights,” Romano said.
Movies like “The Hurt Locker” or “Hustlers” have led to defamation lawsuits from people who claimed they were portrayed in a negative light.
Both of these cases were dropped because the stories were already known, the films did not use real names or likenesses in their adaptations, and, especially for public figures, defamation is difficult to prove.
Similarly, Hulu’s “Pam & Tommy” tells the story of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s sex tape theft, but the show didn’t get Anderson’s permission to tell his story. That’s because the filmmakers can argue that it was already so public.
“There are policies in place that support that,” Romano said. “We want to be able to…tell stories and share art.”
Anderson is now working on her own documentary with Netflix to share her story from her perspective.