How to Secure The Rights to That Awesome Adaptation You Want to Write

I love a good original musical. Many of the writers I talked about in my last post have written them. But if you think about it, original musicals are few and far between. Most – particularly the ones that go onto Broadway or have regular regional productions – are based on preexisting work. Maybe it’s based on a play (Oklahoma and Green Grow the Lilacs). A movie (Nine and 8 ½). A book (Ragtime or The Light in the Piazza). Even real-life events (1776 and the creation of The Declaration of Independence). No matter how awesome or innovative they are, each of these musicals owes its existence to something that someone else created or – in some cases – lived. And if you’re sitting down to write a musical with a story you didn’t create yourself, you’re probably going to need someone’s permission.

Of course, that’s not always the case. If you’re writing a parody, you’re frequently fine to just plow ahead. Or maybe the source material for your musical is in the public domain. Ancient Greek plays. Fairy tales. The work of Edgar Allan Poe or the Brontë sisters. If something’s in the public domain, you’re in the clear to do whatever you want with it. (General rule of thumb: If something was written before 1923, chances are pretty high that it’s in the public domain. But not always… so definitely check!)

If your source material isn’t in the public domain – if it’s under copyright – you need… needNEED to secure the rights.

Now, a personal plea to all writers: please do this.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen musicals that have had the rug pulled out from under them because the writers didn’t secure permission to adapt their source material for the stage. And it’s sad, because it doesn’t matter how well written or promising a show might be, the writer(s) can’t move forward without the rights. And then all that hard work goes poof. It’s frustrating to see that happen.

“But how do I get rights to this source material I want to adapt?” you ask…

Well, I don’t pretend to know all of the ins and outs of the process. And it certainly varies in difficulty from project to project. For instance, if you’re adapting an under-the-radar book published by an independent publisher, chances are you can track down the author and ask him/her directly. Adapt The Shawshank Redemption, and you’ll have to go through movie studio execs and likely Stephen King himself. (But that’s a hypothetical example… Please don’t adapt The Shawshank Redemption.)

But what I can offer you are a few tips I’ve learned listening to some producers working in the business. So read ‘em. Write ‘em down if you have to. Because they’ll come in handy.

1) Start with Research

Before you start writing a single word/note, try to figure out if someone’s developing your source material for the stage already. Obviously there are projects in development that haven’t been announced. But if you can track something down, someone else must have the rights, and chances are slim to none that you’ll be able to do anything unless things fall through with that other project.

The only exception I can think of.

The only exception I can think of.

2) Do a Little Work, But Not All of It

When you’re pitching to whoever owns the rights to your source material, you’ve got to do some work to show that your project is going to be amazing. Write a treatment. Compose a few songs. Even write a couple scenes. And above all, be prepared to talk about your vision with passion. But do not write a full musical unless you’re willing to lock the fruit of all that time and effort away in a drawer if you don’t end up getting the rights. Because that just might happen.

3) Be Flexible

Say you’re trying to adapt a book, and the author is interested. It’s possible that he/she may be totally hands-off and let you do whatever you want. But more likely, he/she will want input in the creative process. And it might not always jive with your vision. So I recommend that you stay flexible. The feedback you get may not be what you imagined from the beginning. But collaboration can be good. You might even discover something awesome that you didn’t even think of.

Sylvester Stallone (who wrote Rocky the movie in addition to starring in it) co-wrote the book of Rocky the Musical. Here he is with Andy Karl, who plays Rocky on Broadway. (Photo by Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)

Sylvester Stallone (who wrote Rocky the movie in addition to starring in it) co-wrote the book of Rocky the Musical. Here he is with Andy Karl, who plays Rocky on Broadway. (Photo by Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic)

4) Get Some Help

Say conversations are moving along nicely, and you get to the point that you draw up an agreement that ensures you have the rights to adapt your source material. If you’re one of those lucky writers with representation, immediately talk to your agent about it. (I’m sure this is a bit of a no-brainer… but still worth mentioning.) If you don’t have representation, find a way to show your agreement to a lawyer. If you’re strapped for cash or don’t know a good, affordable one, maybe try Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. There are just a lot of things that make their way into these kinds of agreements – including division of profits, milestone requirements, and crediting – and you’re going to want to make sure you understand all of it.

5) Prepare Yourself for Heartbreak

Sometimes you can do everything perfectly. You can pitch an amazing project with some awesome sample songs. But despite your efforts, the reality is that you might not get the rights. Maybe you’re competing with another writer. Maybe the owner(s) of the source material rights likes your stuff but just isn’t sold that you can deliver what they see that the project should be. Going even further, maybe they just don’t want their material turned into a musical. There are a lot of factors at play, and you have to brace yourself for the worst while trying so hard for the best.

This is a lot, I know. But you can’t be discouraged. If you love your source material… if you’re passionate… you just need to go for it. And if you’re smart about it, you’ll go far. So get writing!

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