By Gamal Hennessy
Imagine you wrote a story. It’s a popular story, selling forty-four million copies over 14 connected novels spanning from 1990 to 2013. Now imagine your type of story is popular, because stories in the same fantasy genre, like The Hobbit and Game of Thrones, have been cleaning up in movies, TV and video games. Finally, imagine you’ve licensed your story to a production company created just to produce your work and they signed a distribution deal with Universal to distribute your story to the masses.
Are you excited? Can you see yourself inviting J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin to your castle in Davos for a poker game with solid gold chips? Hold that thought.
What if I told you there is such a story, The Wheel of Time written by Robert Jordan? What if I also told you the only TV or movie adaptation ever made of this story in thirteen years was a half hour TV show that aired on FXX at 1:30 am without any advertising, marketing or official notice? What if I told you the show was thrown together weeks before without the knowledge or consent of Jordan’s estate? (See The Sad Lesson of The Wheel of Time) It’s not as exciting now, is it?
The Wheel of Time problem stems from two related contract concepts. The first is the loss of control a writer gives up in exchange for optioning his book, play or comic to be made into a movie (See Losing Control and Loving It). This is a normal aspect of film licensing. Most of the time, a competent production company can adapt a written story to the aesthetics of the screen in a way that makes money. The production company in this case seems unwilling or unable to bring the book to life.
The second problem revolves around the retention of rights. Many licenses for literary properties only last a certain number of years. This is known as the term. The term can be extended as long as the company holding the license continues to release work based on the story. You can see quite a few examples of this in modern film. To a certain extent, the Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and X-Men franchises all get new films every few years to prevent Disney/Marvel from becoming even more of an entertainment juggernaut than it already is (See Is the New Marvel Universe a Secret War on Fox Super Hero Films?). But in the case of Fox and Sony, the source material gets a big budget treatment and star power put behind it. The movies aren’t thrown on to a third tier cable station in the middle of the night without anyone knowing about it.
Hope isn’t lost for an authentic Wheel of Time TV franchise. Many popular characters, including Superman, Terminator, James Bond and Spiderman had to fight in court before they could fight on screen. But creative professionals need to learn from the Wheel of Time debacle. Not every deal is a good deal. Time frame and control of rights matter, even when you’re a novelist or comic author thinking about movie rights. You might not be in the best position to make a deal (See David vs. Goliath), but you and your attorney should strive to give your property the best chance for success (See Treat Your Art as an Investment)
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