DO I NEED TO GET LIFE RIGHTS IF I’M MAKING A MOVIE ABOUT A DEAD PERSON? LESSONS FROM GREEN BOOK

The hit movie Green Book is the feel-good movie of the season.  Winner of three Golden Globe Awards last week, including Best Picture – Musical or Comedy and Best Screenplay, the movie tells the supposedly “true” story of the friendship between the great African-American pianist Dr. Donald Shirley and the white New Yawk driver, Tony Vallelonga (aka Tony Lip) he hires to be his chauffeur and bodyguard on a tour of the South in 1962.

The screenplay was co-written by Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son, who says that he wrote the script based on the stories told to him by his dad.  Reportedly, Nick repeatedly tried to get Dr. Shirley permission to make the movie while he was alive, but was always refused.  However, once Dr. Shirley passed away in 2013, Nick no longer needed his permission.

Why is that?  Because dead people (or their families) cannot sue for defamation (which only applies to people who are living), and right of publicity laws don’t apply to expressive works protected by the 1st Amendment (as Olivia de Havilland recently learned.)

Therefore, Universal could go ahead and make the movie without fear of being sued. Right?  Not so fast.  While it is true that no one can sue over Dr. Shirley’s portrayal in the film, another problem has developed.  Which is that Dr. Shirley’s family have come out strongly against the film. Donald’s brother, Maurice, sent out a scathing statement stating in part, “This movie, “The Green Book” is NOT about MY brother, but about money, white privilege, assumption, and Tony Lip!”

While there was a backlash to the film from the time of its release, the criticism of the family, along with the recent revelation that Nick Vallelonga put out a horrible anti-Muslim tweet in 2015, is almost certainly going to play a significant part in the minds of Academy voters who are presently deciding which films will get nominated.  My guess is that this controversy will almost certainly cost it a screenplay nomination.

So, what is the lessons that producers should take from this situation?  If you are making a movie about a dead celebrity, and you don’t get the person’s family involved (and/or pay them some money), they will be out there bad talking your movie.  If you are making a movie like Vice, about Dick Cheney, then obviously you’re not going to go get the family’s permission (yes, I know Dick Cheney isn’t dead, but you get the idea).  But, in a situation like this, one can see how this could have been handled better.  Had Universal put $100,000 in the budget to hire Shirley’s family as “consultants,” they could have avoided all this bad press.  Considering what Universal is paying for the Green Book awards campaign, that is a small price to pay.

If you’re a producer, it’s just something that you need to keep in mind.  How much is it going to hurt the film if the family is out there talking trash about the film?  Even though it is not legally required, it is sometimes not a bad idea to pay the family something to keep them happy.

 

 

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