Welcome to our archive of the "Ask a Filmmaker," a column that was devoted to your questions and concerns about the filmmaking process. Our guest columnists were screenwriter John August (Go, Charlie's Angels), director Penelope Spheeris (The Decline of Western Civilization, Wayne's World) and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton (My Beautiful Laundrette, The Cider House Rules, The Shipping News).

October 1, 2007

Ask a Director
by Penelope Spheeris

I admire your collection of work. I am an intermediate level producer/director based in Toronto, Canada.

I currently own option rights to the life story of an American Pop Culture Icon. I do not have development funding or funds to develop a script yet with a reputable writer. What advice could you lend in order me to attract potential production partners, directors and actors to jump on board knowing this story will be an automatic hit (plus this star has a book coming out with a major publisher this year)?


It is very important that you do indeed have life rights securely in place. I encourage all young filmmakers to not waste their time if they do not have very solid rights. And…when you do have the rights, make sure you include a viable extension period if indeed there is significant activity at the time of your option's end.

If the `Icon' has a wide fan base it is likely that there are prominent writers, directors and producers that are fans of him/her as well. My advice is to figure out who those people might be and reach out to them. Research the writers whom you believe would respond to this person's life story and see if you can collaborate to get at least a treatment (20-30 pages or so) in place. Be sure at that point that you have a written agreement with the writer that lays the parameters of your and his relationship. If you are dealing with Writers Guild members, then you need to make sure the member is not breaking any rules when he/she does the work.

If you want to go toward a writer/director, then it might be easier to have both in place before you reach out to financing. Also, if the Icon is an artist that produces music, art, or any other possibly copyrighted material, you must make sure that your right to use that work is in place.

If there are other well-known people who would be portrayed in your film, you need have those rights also in place. Having been down the road with the Janis Joplin film for over fifteen years, I highly recommend that you seek legal counsel before putting time, money and energy toward your project. I like your optimism, but the term "automatic hit" bothers me. No such thing. That's like saying you can predict the stock market. My best advice is to proceed with caution, perseverance, diplomacy and make a great film.

Penelope Spheeris made her feature film debut with The Decline of Western Civilization, an energetic documentary about the L.A. punk scene in the early 1980's. She has since directed a number of diverse projects, including Wayne's World , Suburbia , and The Boys Next Door , as well as completing two more films in the Decline series (The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years in 1988 and The Decline of Western Civilization Part III in 1998). We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'n' Roll, debuted at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. In 2004, she produced and directed The Kid and I, based on a true story about a young man with cerebral palsy, who wants to be an actor.

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