One Studio’s Blockbuster; One Author’s Horror Story

I have a horror story for you.

For our protagonist, we have a scrappy physicist turned novelist, who developed what can only be described as one of the most massive blockbusters of recent years. I know, so far out there, right—how could someone possibly relate? Well for starters, let me drop another name on you:

GRAVITY

The Gravity Poster.

Do you remember Gravity? Flailing cameras? Spinning stars? Shrapnel? Sandra Bullock dancing through Earth’s atmosphere? Yes, that Gravity. Well, did you happen to know that Tess Gerritsen is also the person that birthed that particular entity, originally in novel form? I thought not. Yet it plays quite heavily into the why of this horror tale.

Now suppose you take this character and kindly tell them that they don’t need to be paid for their job…and certainly not for the work that came of it. No doubt that’s quirked a few eyebrows. Well, that’s precisely what has happened to Tess Gerritsen. You see, Gerritsen is presently involved in a very nasty little lawsuit over the theft of her property—the aforementioned Gravity—by a little company named Warner.

From “The Gravity of Hollywood: When It’s Okay for a Studio to Steal Your Story” by Matt Wallace:

It seems author Tess Gerritsen sold the rights to her novel GRAVITY to New Line in 1999. In exchange she would receive credit, a production bonus, and net profit points if the movie were made (not only is that never a given, it’s rare).

In 2008 New Line was “acquired” by Warner, who then went on to make the movie GRAVITY from Cuarón’s supposedly original screenplay concerning a medical doctor/astronaut left adrift in space after satellite debris kills the rest of her crew.

The novel GRAVITY is about a female medical doctor/astronaut trapped on the International Space Station after the crew is killed in a series of accidents. Later, as they developed the film, Ms. Gerritsen wrote scenes in which satellite debris broke apart the station and her protagonist was left adrift in her EVA suit.

Sound familiar?

The facts had at this point intrigued me on the level of juicy gossip.

Again, I admit this shamefully. I’ve lived and worked in Los Angeles for almost five years. It jades.

That’s when my lady (who, incidentally, is a brilliant attorney) dropped the ATOM BOMB OF HORROR RADIATING AT THE HEART OF THIS STORY.

Nikki went on to explain to me that author Tess Gerritsen was NOT suing Warner Bros. over copyright infringement or intellectual property theft.

Ms. Gerritsen admits openly and freely that Warner had every right to make the movie GRAVITY, utilizing her story as they saw fit.

She sued them because they brazenly screwed her out of the credit, payment, and profit she was guaranteed from the movie clearly (at least to me) drawn from her work.

The court doesn’t seem to dispute any of that.

This is the horror bomb part.

What both the court and Warner Bros. argue is Warner is under no obligation to honor the contract New Line made with her.

See, the problem was, Warner hadn’t bought the rights to the book. Rather, they bought out the company that had—New Line. Fairly standard fare in the business world, actually; same thing goes for patents. It’s one of the reasons companies do so like to gobble others up, in fact—so they can get access to their hoards. Unfortunately, Warner has argued that while buying up said company has entitled them to its prizes, it has not bound them by the same contracts that enabled those prizes in the first place.

A Publicity shot of Tess Gerritsen.

Thus, they have refused to credit Ms. Gerritsen (who has not in any way debated Warner’s right to publish the movie—merely their refusal to pay her for it), or even pay her. Anything. Which really just seems like the latest par for the course round of writers getting shafted for their hard work. What’s more, as writers and readers continue to rumble and rage about the present state of the publishing industry, about the state of writing, and what creators do or don’t deserve for the trouble, this incident leads to a particularly troubling entry into the debate: that of the legal.

Unfortunately, with studio versus author, we find ourselves at a legal crossroads. Whatever happens here (and the court has currently ruled to dismiss Tess’s case, in Warner’s favor), we’re going to find ourselves with immediate precedent for future cases—and thusly, for the industry at large. Don’t see the big deal? Say the court rules in favor of Warner. To Warner, it’s a solid chunk of change in the immediate, and for Tess Gerritsen, merely no gains on something she’s already not being paid for. That’s the immediate case, though.

In the future, other courts and judges can point to that ruling when they inform authors that studios need not pay on an optioned story—merely because that studio purchases another that had ACTUALLY negotiated the contract under which it was optioned. Essentially, there would be a massive loophole in the rights of authors when it comes to their own creative property—and studios would be able to operate with a lot looser restrictions on how they run their businesses. At least, when it comes to capitalizing off other people’s work.

Right now it’s comics that studios seem to be making huge profits off of, but they have always made a good chunk of their change from the literary scene as a whole. I doubt many moviegoers even realize how many films have that lovely little, “Based on…” disclaimer contained somewhere therein. Adapting books is a huge business, and I think fellow writer Emmie Mears said it best: “The least they can do is ensure those who thought up the stories are compensated accordingly.”

And if you haven’t read the article by Matt Wallace yet, which goes much more in-depth into the issue, and hits things far more eloquently than I, do so. Especially if you’re an author. In the same vein, you can get the story straight from the author’s own mouth, here: “Gravity Lawsuit Affects Every Writer.”

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7 thoughts on “One Studio’s Blockbuster; One Author’s Horror Story

    • Thanks for both the re-blog, and the engagement. You’re right. It’s an important issue that deserves a great deal of attention and research–obviously I don’t have the full scope of the legal arguments arranged before me, but from what I have seen in my investigations, it’s something that should unsettle writers across the board.

      I’ve had a number of people write me saying this is only an issue for successful writers, that “What does this even matter for us little folks?” And that about turns my stomach. It calls into question the whole notion of intellectual property rights, and if we just shrug it off, it has the potential to leave everyone in the lynch in the future; after all, if someone with Tess’s resources can’t win, what hope for the rest of us? And if such things were made precedent? Yikes!

      I hope you get some quality engagement with it over on your site as well, Jan! I also wish you the best of luck as you move your own work toward the movie stage.

      • Hi Chris,
        So far the only real engagement has been on my FB page where I posted it and the comments have been similar to what you describe. Discouraging to me…..
        Nevertheless I will keep on moving my book towards the movie stage….very slow process.

        Best of luck to you!

  1. I wouldn’t imagine Miss Gerritson would be happy to let Warner option anything else of hers in the future. They shoot themselves in the foot if they don’t try to play fair with the author.Yes, there was no actual contract with them but surely an implied moral obligation.
    In future maybe authors should only sell their work if there is an addition to the contract that the work reverts back to them if the studio doesn’t produce a film within say 5 years or if the studio is sold before any film is produced so studios like Warner can’t take advantage of windfalls like this at the authors expense.

    • Well, this is a slightly different case than other instances…but it’s hardly the first time a studio has tried to shaft a creator in terms of rights or payments. As long as someone’s making cash, it’s a practice that continues, and they’ll always have the resources to find other folks willing to roll the dice of chance with them.

      It’s definitely a case that calls contracts into question, and will take a lot of serious legal sit down and consideration. At this stage the case is in Warner’s favor (tragically), but one does have to wonder exactly how the legal language was spelled out there. I’m sure there were likely some provisions for take overs by another company–after all, in Hollywood and even beyond, it’s a pretty common and regular occurrence–and the argument likely falls into the nitty gritty of language.

      Limiting to a production time frame could certainly save a fair share of other creations from the so-called “production hell” terms especially, but in such negotiations, the ultimate power often lies with the studios, and one must question how many would actually agree to such terms. Not being anywhere near to that level of success myself, I really couldn’t speak to what many such adaptation contracts tend to look like.

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