Intellectual Property 101 from an Entertainment Executive
Intellectual Property 101 from an Entertainment Executive
These days in Hollywood, Intellectual Property is king, particularly in television. It seems as if every other day, we hear about a show being sold or picked up based on a book, an article, a podcast, a true story, or another adaptation of some kind. Intellectual Property (aka IP) has always served as source material for television and film projects but has become increasingly important over the past decade with the explosion of the volume of content. Why is IP so central to developing and selling projects? How can you take advantage of this trend? How are producers, agents, and executives looking at IP now?
IP is more important than ever because while the marketplace is booming, it is also steadily tightening. The bar is getting higher and higher every year for a project to be sold, not to mention get made, and in a difficult marketplace, IP offers the safety of bringing in an established audience. Even as executives are crying out for “fresh voices” and “new visions,” they are notoriously gun-shy about taking a risk on new ideas, particularly when they come from emerging writers. IP offers executives the opportunity to be the second person to say yes to an idea, a position that offers both the opportunity to take a chance and the safety of not being the first to jump out of the airplane.
But IP only offers that security when it has a level of legitimacy. Someone has to have already given it a stamp of approval. I often get asked by writers if it would help to write their idea as a book and then use that as IP for their pitch. The problem is a self-published novel with no audience may be IP, but it doesn’t have that “first yes,” so it doesn’t really have value. Executives consider IP valuable if it has received or been shortlisted for some kind of award or has been on some bestseller or “top” list. Even if your book is fantastic, it can take years to write it, get it published, and get that stamp of approval.
There is an avenue you may not have considered yet, though: it is significantly faster and easier to write an article and get it published online, or to get a story on a podcast, or to get a short story into a publication or anthology. All those media can garner an audience, go viral, and even win awards. There are lots of awards out there and even more lists; being on the New York Times bestseller list is magnificent, but not the only possibility.
You might notice, though, that by the time you hear of a new New York Times bestseller, the rights to it have already been snapped up by a production company or studio. How is that possible? These companies work with agents who get manuscripts sometimes years away from publication and get in on the action early. Executives ask agencies to find specific IP in genres they are looking for, and larger companies have IP scouts who filter information about IP in the pipeline to the producers and writers who work with them.
So how can you get in on the action? And what does all this mean for you as a writer or producer? First, if you find a piece of IP you want, you can do the same research agents’ assistants do to find out who owns the rights. You can email publishers to ask about “subsidiary rights” (the term for film and TV adaptation), and often you can get in touch with the authors themselves. Before you contact someone about adapting their work, carefully craft your approach. Why should a publisher or author consider selling the rights to YOU? What makes you passionate about it? Why should the author trust you to be an intimate collaborator, a co-conspirator, in bringing their ideas to the world? This is even more important when going directly to an author or rights holder for a true story. You are trying to build a relationship. Think of it as a bit of courtship – an impassioned letter full of specifics that demonstrate a true understanding of the story (rather than general praise) can make a big impression. Sometimes authors are eager to have their work adapted because they will likely sell more of their work if an adaptation is sold.
Second, any gold miner will tell you to pan for gold in the part of the river where the crowd hasn’t gone. Have an international interest or connection? Look for global IP, not necessarily written in English. There is a wealth of amazing stories as yet undiscovered in far corners of the globe. Or look much closer to home – articles published in small local newspapers or niche magazines often go undiscovered, yet can contain gems of stories highlighting specific, fascinating worlds. Companies exist that curate such content and match producers who are interested in a particular world with writers who have written about that world, but you can find your own matches too.
And then, there are public domain stories. A story in the public domain is IP that is free for anyone to use. But this gets tricky. You need to do some research to make sure a story is actually in the public domain - the rights to an old movie or comic book, for example, may have reverted to the original writer or their family. It can also be advantageous to find something that is newly becoming public domain. Of course, if you can have a property for free, so can everyone else. Owning IP offers you some protection against someone else taking your idea and running with it, but if you don’t own the IP then this protection doesn’t apply. I worry about writers who send a very general pitch to a producer based on a public domain idea because it may very well get “taken.” If you are just pitching that a particular book or historical event would make a good show and haven’t really worked out any characters or storylines, then what is there to steal, really? If you have done little research and virtually no writing, then what are you bringing to the project? So, if you are basing your pitch or script on public domain IP, your vision of the project better be very specific, very unique, very YOU.
Finally, there is great value in true stories, often in the form of life rights. True stories are very compelling and easily inspire investment, probably because we are allowed to “believe.” Paradoxically, the requirements of good storytelling trump “truth” every time. As a writer, you need to do your research, but chances are the audience will not, or at least not until after they’ve watched your show or film. This means being careful, gentle, and transparent with the person whose story you are telling about what promises you can realistically make and keep about “truthfulness.” Often, even if you have life rights, it can be advantageous to back it up with a book or article (or get those rights instead if such an IP exists) to broaden your available sources as well as to protect your particular version of the story.
If there is one secret of the industry that most writers don’t know, it’s this: we often “backfill” IP. You may think the way it works is that a writer finds a book, options it, writes an adaptation, and bam, there is a show or film. Yes, of course, it can work like that, but more often than you think, it doesn’t. Instead, a writer has an idea or just an interest in a world or a particular story. They start to work on a pitch, perhaps even a script. Sometimes they do tons of research; their desk is crowded with books and folders. And then a producer or executive says, "How about we find an IP to underpin this, to give it legitimacy and protection? Is there something you’ve read that you could see as valuable source material?"
Valuable can mean two things, and good IP can have either one: useful in terms of actually developing the project and useful in terms of that legitimacy value (i.e., winner of an award or a bestseller). The second can be even more valuable than the first. Which is where you get “inspired by” or “based loosely on.” You are under no obligation to have a certain portion of the IP actually make it into your project.
Once you identify IP you want, or if you’ve written something that could serve as IP, familiarize yourself with the basics of how shopping and option agreements work. Pay attention to the “term” or length of the agreement, any extensions, and the “tail” – the amount of time the agreement stays in force if someone the IP was submitted to suddenly expresses interest. Don’t just look for money to change hands now, what is anticipated to happen when the project sells? And a very important point is what if any creative control the IP holder will have over the adaptation, which can range from full script approval to creative consultation, to none at all. Stage 32 has multiple webinars covering the details, and if you are in the IP business as either a buyer or seller, you simply must educate yourself.
So what’s my favorite type of IP? Well, I am a history buff and love period projects. If you’re writing one and need help, check out my upcoming lab in which you develop and write your historical fiction pilot, starting on February 18th, 2023. Throughout the lab, you'll study successful period shows depicting both real and fictional characters in historical settings, and get three one-on-one sessions with me to develop your project and walk away with a fantastic historical script in your portfolio.
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About the Author
Anna Henry began her 20-year career as a development executive at Nickelodeon, working on the development and production of animated television series, pilots and features, including the cult hit “Invader Zim.” She crossed over to prime-time television working at CBS and ABC in drama development and...