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Can You Write or Produce a Biopic Project Without Permission of the Subject?

Producing a biopic project

Around the end of last year, I rewatched some old Pauly Shore “classics” which brought back fun memories, including “Jury Duty” and “Son in Law”. Afterwards I found myself researching what Pauly Shore was doing now and whether he had retired from acting. I came across a series of posts and videos where Pauly and his fans were rooting for him to make a comeback portraying Richard Simmons in a production about his life. I have fond memories of Richard Simmons promoting “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” when I was younger. Pauly’s resemblance was uncanny, and I found myself excited at the prospect and wanted to see Pauly acting again.

Further research revealed Pauly’s effort had generated enough buzz to elicit a response from the notoriously private Richard Simmons who emphatically rejected any interest in a movie on his life. Flash forward a few weeks to January 2024, and I was ecstatic to learn a biopic project was actually in development with Pauly starring as Richard Simmons! However, Richard Simmons had quickly responded by posting he had “never given my permission for this movie.” Most recently, Pauly released a teaser short film that screened at screened at Sundance, and, per TMZ, he is still hoping to change Richard Simmons’ mind and convince him to come on board and collaborate.

This is just one example of a biopic project moving forward without the subject’s permission. It raises questions such as whether you can write or produce a biopic project without the cooperation and/or of life rights of the subject, and what may happen if you don’t. 

Does a person own the rights to their life story?

Generally, no one owns the rights to their life story. You can write a book or movie about someone’s life without a life rights agreement and without their permission with the caveat you must obtain the information lawfully such as through information and records available in the public domain. However, you risk someone suing for defamation, invasion of privacy, or similar claims. Even if you are ultimately successful in defending such claims, they can be expensive to litigate and can hold up your project.


Why buy the rights to someone’s life story?

While a life rights agreement may not be necessary for a biopic project, there are benefits. Among other things, such an agreement protects against suits for defamation, invasion of privacy and similar claims. It assists with cooperation of the subject as well as family, heirs and friends who may strengthen the project. It can provide access to information or writings that may not be publicly available to add new insight to your project. Your subject's blessing also adds authenticity and legitimizes your project, particularly if there are other competing biopics. It can also assist in obtaining E&O insurance which may assist with distribution. Even if you do not obtain a life rights agreement, having the subject on board with production will add value. 


What if the subject has passed? 

If the subject has passed away, his or her family or heirs cannot sue for defamation or invasion of privacy on behalf of the deceased subject. These are personal claims that do not pass to a person’s estate after death. For that reason, it’s easier to make a biopic about a person who has passed. However, you may still face legal claims if you feature living family or friends of the deceased subject in your biopic without their consent. 


In sum, if you are considering a biopic project and want to minimize risks and legal disputes, a life rights agreement is ideal. You should consult an attorney to advise on the issues and questions to consider as part of such an agreement. For more information about defamation and invasion of privacy claims you should also contact an attorney.


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