As a professional athlete – the “one-in-a-million” that has ascended to the highest level of your sport—it’s likely that you have a compelling story to tell. Does that mean that Will Smith or Jennifer Lawrence should be playing you in the next major motion picture blockbuster based on your life story? Perhaps not. But that doesn’t mean selling your life rights for a feature film, television series or book based on your life is not a potentially valuable opportunity.
There are various motivations to agreeing to have your life story exploited commercially. Some athletes feel like their stories can inspire those from similar backgrounds to battle adversity in the pursuit of a professional athletics career. Some see it primarily as a lucrative financial opportunity
(in combination with a successful marketing campaign for the release of a film, television series or book). Others are interested in growing a stronger brand for themselves that can create a national platform for additional “off-field”/“off-court” opportunities.
Whatever the motivation, there is a need to ensure that your other business agreements (such as player contracts or endorsements deals) do not prevent you from selling your life rights at some time in the future. By the same token, you don’t want to enter into an agreement for a film, television series or book based on your life that could violate any of those previous agreements or jeopardize your valued business relationships. Before you venture into a project about your life, please keep the following things in mind.
Know Your Rights
In “selling” your life rights you would be exercising your “right of publicity” by granting a third party the right to exploit your personal story, name and likeness (amongst other personal and property rights) for commercial gain. You have built up economic value in your identity but you don’t have to sell your entire life story at once. You can limit these rights by specifying the media in which your story can be exploited. You can allow your story to be used for a feature film but not for documentaries, television productions or books. You can also limit the number of times your story can be exploited. (That means no sequels.) And you can even limit the production to cover a certain period of your life (for example, a grant from October 1990 through May 1998 for a film based on Michael Jordan’s six NBA titles with the Bulls), or specific events of your life (such as rights directly related to the 1997 Masters Golf Tournament for a film based on Tiger Woods’ first major victory). In doing these deals, you never want to prevent yourself from making money or spreading your message in other “off-field”/“off-court” opportunities that relate to or draw on your life experiences (such as speaking engagements, broadcasting positions, being a guest, host or judge for magazine, sports, game show, reality television or other programming). This means that certain rights should not be granted exclusively or should simply be reserved.
In most cases, the more limited the rights are that are being granted, the less a producer will pay for those rights. However, these deals can earn you significant dollars if structured properly. The actual amount you get paid for a project is the subject of sometimes fierce, industry-based negotiation. However, your compensation should include option fees (in order for the producer to control these rights for a limited period of time), a purchase price (paid either as a fixed fee or a percentage of the production budget), consulting fees (for you to provide the producer and screenwriter unique creative insight), bonuses (based on the project’s performance), passive payments (if rights are not granted strictly on a “one-picture license” basis) and profit participation (which should be defined in a way that may actually yield real upside in the successful release and exploitation of the project). These are a few examples of the multiple ways you can be paid for a project.
Protect Your Playing Career
An area of significant negotiation is how much creative input versus approval an athlete has in the final narrative of the story. No matter how unique your life story, producers will want to have the creative freedom to change certain events of your life, dramatize certain story lines, fictionalize certain characters and portray your persona in a way that will make the project most entertaining. Other than losing authenticity of the story, without thoughtful checks and balances in the creative development and production process, the released version of the project could embarrass you and your family or reflect badly on your franchise, teammates, team owners or third-party endorsers or sponsors. Pay very careful attention to this area in conjunction with the provisions of your other agreements, including those dealing with termination for breach of a “morals clause.” You can address these issues through certain screenplay approval rights or with compromises that ensure that your character is not portrayed as being involved in contextually-specific “prohibited activities” (such as drug use or events of domestic violence) even if such activities are completely fictionalized.
Manage Your Endorser Relationships
Your endorsement deals and your investments in third party businesses (see our article in the Holiday 2015 edition of Athletes Quarterly – Building Your Brand: Smart Moves for Sweat Equity) need to be considered before proceeding with a life rights deal. These endorsement and investment deals should contemplate some of the possible conflicts that may arise, specifically in regards to exclusivity. In fictionalized storytelling (whether historic or present day), you may need some “contractual flexibility” in your agreements to allow for your character to be associated with competitive brands (whether on-screen or in promotion of the film during its release). A related issue is whether you, as an athlete, are able to grant the producer the right to use your name and/or likeness in connection with merchandising and commercial tie-ins for the promotion of the project. If permissible, this represents another opportunity for you to negotiate a separately calculated royalty from, or profit participation in, the revenue generated from these marketing activities.
So what is the monetary value of your life rights? The accurate answer is… it depends. It depends on what you do to protect your life rights. It depends on you granting only rights that are actually required. And it depends on what you do to preserve the exploitation value of those rights and what you do to prevent any limitations on your own use of such rights. Along with your business and legal team, you should always be forward thinking in how best to navigate the relevance and complexities of the deals you make and the effects they may have on each of your personal and professional relationships.
Alan Sacks is a partner at Frankfurt Kurnit Klein + Selz. He can be reached at ASacks@fkks.com.