Screenwriting : Avoiding Libel with screenplay for biographical film by Brandon M. Freer

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Brandon M. Freer

Avoiding Libel with screenplay for biographical film

Hi everyone. So I am getting started with a screenplay adaptation for a self-published author based on their memoir and biography. After going through the manuscript in great detail, conducting interviews with other members of the family and lots of interviews with the author on specific details, I have started to see some "cracks" in the original book. I feel like some of the events depicted are clearly biased from their point of view, contain inaccurate information or hearsay, and could even paint certain people in a very negative light publicly. Also, it turns out that in the original manuscript, there isn't a very good job of hiding the identity of people, with some simply using name swaps. IE - Joe Johnson became John Josephson in the book. I have put some calls out for Entertainment Lawyers in my area, but still waiting to hear back. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

Derek Reid

Assuming this is a spec effort, I personally wouldn't take anyone's advice other than a licensed attorney. Best wishes!

Brandon M. Freer

Thanks.

Debbie Croysdale

There are “Cheese holes” in what you are allowed to print, if in doubt ask permission from characters you are thinking about writing about, they might surprise you and give you written permission. Lawyers will ask big bucks. Characters just say yes or no. Libel is libel if a character says its untrue. Recently I wrote a script about a gangsters life in Borstal in early years, the guy has four ex wives and I was not sure if they might object to what he told me being in print. I just went up to ask them each in turn and actually got a few extra titbits for my script.

Stephen Floyd

To prove libel, you have to demonstrate the accused knew the information they printed was false and did so with malicious intent to harm a victim. So if you have a pretty good idea the information at hand is inaccurate and potentially harmful, that’s a strong case for not using it. However, if your story becomes about the inaccuracies, a la I Tonya, that’s another matter.

Dan MaxXx

I’d write the best spec screenplay regardless of libel/lawsuits. It’s a writing sample until it ain’t, and anything great will have a law firm behind it. “Blonde Ambition”, “Frat Boy Genius”, “Bubbles” are spec screenplays about famous people with lots of money to go to court. But studios still purchased the specs. Aaron Sorkin never spoke to Mark Zuckerberg or Steven Jobs before writing the biopics. Nobody sued Sorkin.

Stephen Floyd

Has anyone tried to sue the writer of the book you’re using?

Brandon M. Freer

The book was self-published and not a huge seller, so I don't think many of the people that might be problematic are even aware that the book is out there. I do think the author's story is compelling and can make a great movie. Some of the aspects I think are public record, because there were lawsuits involved. But how we portray those scenes and characters is pretty critical because some of the people that might come across as being vilified are lawyers themselves.

Phil Clarke

I agree with Dan on this.

Dan Guardino

This book has been published and based on the author's life experiences so I agree with Dan M. If you sell it the producer is responsible to get clearances.

Debbie Croysdale

@Stephen has a point Libel is when someone INTENTIONALLY aims damage. People say things that may piss us off, all the time but it is the INTENT to cause upset that is the crime. Libel is always well planned and often delivered to the victim “Anonymously” It is not Joe Soap being rude in public. The victim feels hurt even when slander is not true. The Psychic Vampires who deliver scribbled notes, hide in supposed safe zone, while victim has a nervous crash. I suffered Libel in past couple years but feel more sorry for the antagonist than myself, they are themselves and I am myself.

Dan Guardino

I agree with Debbie and the person would have to show damages. However they would sue the producer who produced the film so they are the ones who are responsible for getting clearances. However you'd have to secure rights from the author or nobody would want to option it but I'm sure you already knew that.

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