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Is it okay for me to send out a spec script based on the central character of a popular Hollywood movie?

By Robert L. Seigel

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Question: I've written a spec script based on the central character of a popular Hollywood movie. Is it okay for me to send this script out to producers and agents as a sample or do I need to obtain some kind of release from the studio who made the original film that the character appeared in? Is it worth me contacting the studio anyway in the hope that they like the script?

Although your use of a character from an existing motion picture feature is for demonstration purposes, it does constitute copyright infringement since one of the rights which a copyright holder has is the exclusive right to create derivative works based on an existing work. Although there is quite a bit of "fan fiction" in which fans write stories using characters from television shows such as "Law & Order" and "Star Trek", the studios and production companies which hold the rights to these programs generally turn a "blind eye" on this practice since these amateur writers are writing as a hobby with no interest in using these protected works and characters found in their stories in the commercial marketplace. Your use of such a character is an attempt to get a foothold into the commercial marketplace.

You could seek a release from the copyright owner of the work which includes the character but most copyright holders want to keep a tight rein on how protected works are being used by others in a commercial context so that the value of their copyrighted work is not possibly diluted from any overuse not controlled by them.

Your question reminds me of a time when a writer sent to me a screenplay which was an adaptation of a book featuring James Bond which was commissioned by the Ian Fleming estate. Although the adaptation was very good, I informed the writer that the work had a potential buying group of one, the producers of the Bond franchise. More importantly, the adaptation did not work as the most effective writing sample for the writer since it did not indicate the writer’s ability to create interesting and compelling characters and stories of the writer’s own invention.

Often television writers usually write spec scripts that are writing samples using characters and situations from existing television shows. However, the writer is trying to demonstrate how well the writer can write a script using a television producer party’s characters and situations. Usually the writer writes a spec script based on an existing show but the writer does not submit it to the producers of that particular show itself since that show’s producers have read many sample scripts which utilize situations that have been included in prior episodes or have been dismissed in the past by the show’s producers for a variety of reasons ranging such as character consistency, plotline overuse and production expense.

In short, for motion pictures, write the best original screenplay that you can.

About Robert L. Seigel

Robert L. Seigel ([email protected]) is a NYC entertainment attorney and a partner in the Cowan DeBaets Abrahams & Sheppard LLP law firm which specializes in the representation of clients in the entertainment and media areas.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided here is intended to provide general information and does not constitute legal advice. You should not act or rely on such information without seeking the advice of an attorney and receiving counsel based on your particular facts and circumstances. Many of the legal principles mentioned might be subject to exceptions and qualifications, which are not necessarily noted in the answers. Furthermore, laws are subject to change and vary by jurisdiction.
Screenwriting Article by Robert L. Seigel

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