Tuesday, March 29, 2011

the price of a soul: a cautionary tale

What is the price of a soul? For me, it’s one percent of a film option. That’s how much I’m being paid to release my hold on a purloined property. Because of the terms of the agreement, I can’t give many details, but I am free to denounce the resulting travesty of justice to my heart’s content. Sounds like I’m bitter, but I’m really not. The situation has been dragging on for years and I’m just happy to be done with it.

As you’ve no doubt already guessed, the situation in question is theft of intellectual property. Years ago a friend and I wrote a stage play based on a classic 1950s science fiction movie that has been a favorite of mine since I was a child and is currently in the public domain. We are both huge fans of such musical adaptations as Little Shop of Horrors, Evil Dead: The Musical and Reefer Madness: The Musical. We just love that sort of thing and being the serial thespians that we are, it was really inevitable that we sit down and scribble out our own twisted take on the genre.

The result was actually pretty good. It was deadpan and true to the original, while being subversive and brilliantly funny. My partner in this endeavor is phenomenal at writing witty dialog and his expertise with double and triple entendre is masterful. He’s worked with other writers, including Peaches Christ and John Waters, and is very well known for his wordplay. To make a long story short, we ran into a little problem. We had a book, but no musical score. Neither of us are very adept in that area, so we decided to shop it around. That was our big mistake. Actually, the biggest was not getting the book copyrighted first.

Yep, you guessed it. One of the wunderkind musicians we were put in contact with was, and still is, a snake. We met with him once and he showed a great deal of enthusiasm for the project. Unfortunately, the ideas he started firing in our direction were not exactly brilliant. In fact, they were tired, hokey and more than a little juvenile. We wrote him off. He, on the other hand, wasn’t done. While we were busy talking to other people--including a very well known Broadway producer who was dating a friend of ours at the time and told us he was interested in looking at a completed project once we’d squared the music away—the Snake was busy plotting.

Some time passed and life intruded, as it so often does. I had a VERY messy divorce to deal with and my writing partner was pulled away to other projects. A year passed and I found myself living in another state. Then, one Spring day, I received a frantic phone call from my writing partner. He had just discovered that the Snake had entered a “new” piece in a national playwriting festival. Worse, he hadn’t even bothered to change the name. He’d stolen our property, dumbed it way down, wrapped his moronic musical numbers around it and was pushing it as his own.

We immediately contacted him to ask what the deal was and his response was, “Well, I thought you guys had decided not to do anything with it, so I went ahead and finished it.” He was completely unapologetic and added insult to injury by telling us that he had copyrighted his version. It was, so far as the law was concerned, his property. Yes, we probably could have made a big deal about it, but neither of us was in the position to hire a lawyer and besides, after reading his version of the script, we were convinced that his crappy, witless version of our property couldn’t possibly go far. Little did we know.

That play has now been produced by several theatre companies with questionable taste and is enjoying a modicum of success, though I’m convinced it’s only because it had a solid framework to begin with. The characters are all still the same, though the words coming out of their mouths are nothing like what my writing partner and I envisioned. For us, it’s a bit like taking the script for Little Shop of Horrors and letting the writers of the most recent American Pie moves have their way with it. Embarrassing, to say the least. The fact that we are not credited in any way is a blessing we’ve learned to live with.

Ah, but the plot thickens. Now, it seems, there is an independent movie production company interested in turning the Snake’s version of our property into a movie. Which means he has been working overtime to come up with a contract that would shut us the hell up, so he can pursue his lie. We’ve gone through several versions of the contract, in which we have been repeatedly insulted by stupid attempts at mollification, such as offering us a cameo role in the film as comic relief poking fun at our plight. Not funny in the slightest, but the man is a moron, so it isn’t surprising. We’ve gone round and round, with point spreads being offered and in the end have decided that it’s best just to be done with this business.

I don’t want to have anything to do with the finished product, IF there ever is one. Having working in the film industry for many years, I know there is a huge difference between having your script optioned and seeing it completed. Then there’s the problem of distribution. If this craptastic movie ever DOES get made, it will most likely find its way into the bargain bin at Big Lots before it ever makes it to Barnes & Noble. So, after much deliberation and hours of phone calls between my writing partner and the Snake, I’ve decided to settle. I’m selling that little part of my soul for one percent of the option price.

It just isn’t worth the fight anymore. I mean, it’s not the only thing I’ve ever written and it will hardly be the last. I’ve had my successes both before and after the writing of that script. And, if I have to be honest, as the time slips away, and as my writing partner finds more and more success in his own endeavors, the chances of us ever getting together long enough to orchestrate a musical score for our version are becoming slimmer by the month. Then there’s the problem of having to explain that OUR version is in no way associated with the Snake’s version. That’s not a discussion I want to have over and over again.

So, it’s done. The contract has been signed and a lesson has been learned. Never, EVER shop a property around until AFTER it has been copyrighted. It’s a very simple process and extremely important. By not doing so, we all run the risk of seeing our fresh, witty, intellectual properties mangled and morphed into a shambling pile of mutant fart jokes and musical masturbation numbers. It can happen. It has happened. I am a living example of this fact and have the paperwork to prove it. That and a check I will be very happy to spend. ‘Nuff said.

No comments:

Post a Comment