Getting the necessary rights to turn a movie into a musical?
August 9, 2010 12:21 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to find out if a pre-existing work has already been optioned for an adaptation to a different medium? Specifically, if a film has been optioned for a musical.

Legal and business naive artist here.

I have an, erm, friend who, um, is interested in turning one of several films into a large, commercial musical.

What I'm wondering is this: is there any sort of resource that tracks the state of the rights for these films, as in who owns them, if it has been optioned already and is in the works, if the rights are unlocked and the owners are even open to the idea of optioning it, and other similar info? Is this the sort of thing I would need an agent or lawyer to do? Or is it, as I fear, a case by case sort of situation, where you have to either have a connection or do an incredible amount of digging and cold calling?

If there is no such resource, and say I wanted to option the rights to create like Free Willy: the Musical, and wasn't directly connected to anyone involved with the original film production, where would I even begin?

(Free Willy: the Musical is completely hypothetical, so I'm not looking for advice specific to that piece)
posted by Lutoslawski to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
While it is quite common for books to be optioned for movies, it is rare for movies to be optioned for musicals. Mel Brooks took his movie "The Producers" (which originally had some music) and turned it into a full-fledged musical for the stage and later filmed it as a new musical movie. There are various new versions of "The Wizard of Oz" but that was always a musical. Non-musical movies do not normally become musicals. I do not see any likelihood that "Free Willy" has been optioned as a musical. The idea is extremely bizarre.
posted by grizzled at 1:00 PM on August 9, 2010


Lots of movies that weren't musicals have become musicals (or are becoming). Examples: A Little Night Music (was the movie Smiles of a Summer Night), Passion (was the movie Passione d'amour), Legally Blonde, Urban Cowboy, Spiderman, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the Full Monty, Hairspray, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Nine, Billy Elliot...the list goes on.

I ask in part because I was recently involved with a project where we had connections to the writer of a certain movie we wanted to turn into a musical. We found no evidence that this project had been considered. After putting in quite a bit of work on the thing, we discovered it had already been optioned and we were too late.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:51 PM on August 9, 2010


If it's something that came out within the last 30 years or so, call the studio. If it's not that clear, check out the Company Credits section of the film's imdb listing for some places to start.

If the rights to your movie are in any way in dispute, you should probably go back to the drawing board. For instance see Steven Soderberg's attempt to turn A Confederacy of Dunces into a movie - there are just too many warring factions involved, and it's basically never going to happen. And that's an Oscar-winning director with lots of money to throw at something like this, major stars attached, etc.

You might want to start getting in touch with entertainment lawyers and such to find out how exactly this would work. What sort of rights would you be buying? Is an option involved? What kinds of money are we talking about?

Grizzled is sort of right, however - you may have more luck approaching someone who was involved with the film and seeing if you can get them on board. That might grease some wheels, especially if your connection was the major guiding force behind the project (a la Mel Brooks and The Producers).

Do you have anyone "important" involved? Producers or theatre companies interested? Access to a significant amount of money? Is this something that could really happen, or a pie in the sky dream?
posted by Sara C. at 2:18 PM on August 9, 2010


Also, is it possible that you could contact people in the know who were involved with projects like this? How did they go about doing it? When did they option the rights, and how did they do that?
posted by Sara C. at 2:20 PM on August 9, 2010


Do you have anyone "important" involved? Producers or theatre companies interested? Access to a significant amount of money? Is this something that could really happen, or a pie in the sky dream?

Well, here's more back story for the question: a good friend of mine called me with an idea for an 80's movie that she thought would make a very good, very commercially viable musical. I agreed. The plus side was that my friend's father is good friends with the writer of the film in question.

We assembled a small team, including a producer interested in backing it, and started working on a treatment with which we could approach the aforementioned writer of this movie to see what he thought about the concept of making it a musical, hoping he would like our work and let us option the show.

So, as far as that goes, it was a 'this could actually happen' sort of thing. It was largely the connections (and the business opportunity) that made us pursue the project - i.e. not just 'wouldn't that be neat, heh heh.'

The big disappointment came when my friend's dad was having dinner with the screenwriter in question and brought up the idea. As it turned out, the rights to the musical were already being optioned. We were too late and our work was futile.

Since we still have a team together with some forward momentum, we're considering other viable projects - and we just want to make sure that we don't end up in the same situation of doing too much work on it only to find out it was a non-starter from the beginning.

I've known lesser-known composer/lyricist teams who have auditioned to write the musical of a film, the rights having been purchased by a large production company and then a sort of RFP thing sent out for a creative team. We aren't quite as interested in that as finding a project that we feel could be very successful, artistically and financially, and pursuing it.

Anyway, we have access to certain important people in B'way production circles, small theatre companies who would be willing to workshop it (on the West or East coast) and that sort of thing - no tremendous amounts of money on hand.

We have a lawyer representing us. But it's going to have to be us doing the sort of legwork, here. The idea is that a fairly significant amount of money would be involved, i.e. we're approaching the project as way to make money ourselves, but also as a financial boon for the writer of whatever film.

I guess the question could be phrased like, 'how did the unknown writers of (Debbie Does Dallas the Musical, Poseidon the Musical, Legally Blond, etc), get permission to do these projects? How do you get your foot in the door to create a musical based upon a well-known film when you are not yourself Stephen Sondheim or Andrew Lloyd Webber?
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:01 PM on August 9, 2010


It would be extremely rare for a screenwriter to retain any kind of ownership or other rights to a film. Their original deal would have to have bifurcated rights, and unless they are very established (like Mel Brooks) or very lucky, it's unlikely. So, talking to the screenwriter is a dead end in most cases. They can't make the deal you want, and it's not a "financial boon" for them as they've already likely signed away those rights. Unlike theatre, writers do not retain ownership in the mainstream film industry.

The studio or production company which finances and the film buys out all the rights. Most of these musical adaptations are generated by the corporate entity which owns the film in the first place, so they already had the rights to begin with.

At the end of the credits on the film you will see a copyright line. That is who owns the rights to the film (and probably any remake or ancillary rights, which is what you're talking about). It is most likely the studio or production company or network (if the project was for television).

In my experience, there are only a few ways to get in the door, and for all of them, you have to have relationships in the film industry (and real money for the rights).

You can't just call the studio, no one of any significance is likely to talk to you. If you identify the executive producer of the film, you can try to call their office. (A membership to imdbPro will provide some contact info for producers and production companies - not always accurate.) They might not own the rights any more, but they will have the relationship with whoever does. If you have any contacts at the major agencies, they might be interested in making the deal if they could package talent, and they would have the relationships necessary to identify and contact the rights-holders.

You say you have a lawyer representing you, but are they an entertainment attorney with relationships in the industry? If not, you should consider finding one who is, as that person could help you identify rights holders for any specific film you are interested in adapting.

Finally, if you are looking to adapt a mainstream property, owned by mainstream media, then be aware that they don't need you to do this. So you have to make them want you. Write a few songs, create a kick-ass presentation that will knock their socks off and make them think that you are the only ones who can do this project. You're going to have to risk doing work on spec and possibly being ripped off. A treatment won't do it if you're trying to do a musical. If you just approach them with the idea of doing a musical you are not likely to get anywhere. (You could inquire about the rights first, and then create the presentation, but your inquiry might also give them the idea to do it and they could go off down that road without you. There's nothing you can do about that. (It happened to me exactly like that once, not just my inquiry sparking the idea to make the film in the first place, but the entire production strategy I pitched. My only consolation was that the resulting film tanked.)

Good luck.
posted by ljshapiro at 4:54 PM on August 9, 2010


I guess the question could be phrased like, 'how did the unknown writers of (Debbie Does Dallas the Musical, Poseidon the Musical, Legally Blond, etc), get permission to do these projects? How do you get your foot in the door to create a musical based upon a well-known film when you are not yourself Stephen Sondheim or Andrew Lloyd Webber?

Why don't you ask other people you know in the industry? Or your lawyer? It seems that you already know people who are better equipped to advise you about this than anybody at AskMe could reasonably be.

You can't just call the studio, no one of any significance is likely to talk to you.

I didn't mean calling up the studio to ask if they could option the rights - I meant calling up the studio to ask if the rights are even available to be optioned. And, yes, if you know who to call and how to ask your question in a non-stupid manner, you most certainly can do such a thing. It's not like they're going to say, "we can't tell you if we own the rights or not, theatre nerd! bwahaha" and give you a wedgie through the phone. People inquire about this sort of thing all the time.

Though of course ljshapiro is right that you want to be delicate about this and carefully protect any ideas or intellectual property that you share.
posted by Sara C. at 6:58 PM on August 9, 2010


Calling the studio that made the film is the way to go. If you find the right person in the production office, they ought to be able to find the right person to ask.

Y'know, lots of 80s movies are pretty ripe for this. For instance- Ferris Buehler's Day Off, the Musical?

Many apologies if this actually was the movie, but that's pretty unlikely, right? Right?
posted by JMOZ at 6:04 AM on August 10, 2010


Thanks guys.

Finally, if you are looking to adapt a mainstream property, owned by mainstream media, then be aware that they don't need you to do this. So you have to make them want you. Write a few songs, create a kick-ass presentation that will knock their socks off and make them think that you are the only ones who can do this project.


This was precisely what we were trying to do. We hadn't even really tapped our connection, waiting until we had something badass to show him. Then of course we found out it was a non-starter. I suppose doing a lot of work that won't go anywhere is part of the business.

Y'know, lots of 80s movies are pretty ripe for this. For instance- Ferris Buehler's Day Off, the Musical?

Many apologies if this actually was the movie, but that's pretty unlikely, right? Right?


Well, I guess since it makes no difference now, it was Back to the Future.

posted by Lutoslawski at 11:00 AM on August 10, 2010


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