I got this question recently:
“I read through your post regarding writings which include myths, legends, etc. which I understand that those are fine since characters/stories like those are not technically copyrighted due to how long ago they’ve been around or circulated, but what about wanting to write screenplays as adaptations off a property?
So many movies now a days are based off or adapted from comics, video games, animation, etc. So do you know of any advice/procedure that must be done in order to write a script draft off an obviously copyrighted property?
I have also read about people who are already involved in the writing/film industry who write/direct films based off such properties and then pitch the project to a production studio to fund/film it (example is David Hayter who worked on the x-men and watchmen scripts is now pitching to adapt a film adaptation of the video game Lost Planet to Warner Bros. but how is he able to do so? Do you first have to get the permission of the original game developers/company before writing your script draft or can you write your draft and then present it to the retainers of that said property to see if they like your pitch and will give you the “thumbs up” to try to get the product produced?)
Any advice you have or know of regarding this topic would be most welcome since I have a few properties that I would love to write up as script adaptations but am unfamiliar with such a process. ”
Always keep in mind that while I have written a few screenplays I’m not a lawyer so please don’t think anything I write about on my website is sound legal advice. Always consult with a qualified entertainment attorney about any legal questions.
You can write a spec screenplay based on any material you want and you don’t have to get any sort of permission from anyone. But if your script is based on a copyrighted piece of material someone, either yourself or the producer, will need to acquire the film rights before the movie can be distributed and sold. So most producers aren’t going to waste their time optioning or buying (or even reading) your screenplay unless you’ve already attained those rights.
Now with that said, if you write an absolutely killer spec screenplay based on other material you might find a producer that’s willing to go out and try and secure the film rights for you. But I’d say it’s fairly unlikely, but you never know. But if your screenplay is great it might just serve as a good writing sample for you and a producer might read it and hire you to work on some of her other projects.
If you’re trying to get into television writing, this is exactly what you do. You write spec scripts based on existing television shows. It’s rare that one of these specs ever gets sold but if it’s a great script it acts as your writing sample.
I had a friend once write a spec script based on an obscure Steven King short story. He found a producer who liked it and they went about trying to get the rights to it. I don’t think they ever got the rights and I think the project just died. So that’s the chance you take if you write something based on on existing material – you won’t get in any trouble for writing it but your project might never see the light of day, either.
In your example of a director pitching an idea to a studio for a project based on existing material, again, there’s no legal problem with this. If the studio likes the idea they will immediately acquire the film rights for the property, and if they can’t get those rights the project won’t move forward.
As far as how to acquire the rights, you need to spend some money and get help from a good entertainment attorney because you’ll want the contract you sign with the copyright holder to be buttoned up properly.
As you point out, there lots of movies that are being made based on existing properties. It seems to me that there are probably literally thousands of properties floating around out there that an up-and-coming writer could acquire fairly cheaply. If you can think of an old toy or an old book you might try and track down the copyright holder and see if you can acquire the film rights. You never know, you might be able to get them for free if it’s a property that no one else is currently interested in, but it might be something that could help you get your script made if you had the rights.
Also, this post might be helpful: Writing a spec script based on an existing franchise.