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Two attorneys meet with their death-row client at one of America’s most notorious prisons and tell him he’s scheduled to die in the next month. After more than a decade of fighting for his innocence, the appeals have run out. As they drive in silence across Louisiana to break the news to the inmate’s young son, one checks a voice mail. There is an excited message from a private investigator, saying she’s found something big. The new evidence sets in motion a series of events that eventually lead to his exoneration. This true story of two Morgan Lewis attorneys, partners Michael Banks and J. Gordon Cooney Jr., is packed with enough dramatic tension to fill a Hollywood screenplay. Or so Disney believes. Touchstone Pictures has made a deal for a film based on the Philadelphia attorneys’ 15-year pro bono crusade to overturn John Thompson’s murder conviction. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon will star as the Morgan Lewis duo. In order to produce a movie depicting the events, Disney purchased the life-story rights for the attorneys and Thompson, a common yet quirky legal transaction. Sellers — and the lawyers who represent them — must tie the often-messy details of a life story into a neat legal bundle. “We’re both flattered,” Cooney says. “We were primarily interested in generating money for John.” The lawyers got connected with Disney through producing team Amanda Stern and Fred Bodner. Stern is a distant relative of Banks, and Cooney went to school with Bodner. Cooney and Banks wouldn’t comment on the details of their negotiations with Disney, but entertainment lawyers in Los Angeles say the process of selling one’s life story to a studio usually follows a similar trajectory. Although there are always people who are convinced their life story needs to be told on the silver screen, usually a studio or producer seeks out the subject. Often their interest comes from a nationally published news story or from someone who is already famous enough to drive box-office crowds. For example, Erin Brockovich’s news-generating crusade against Pacific Gas & Electric resulted in the feature film of the same name. RIGHTS OF WAY Once the parties connect, they usually negotiate an exclusive option to buy the story while they figure out whether the movie will come together. Sometimes, stories are so coveted that the rights may be purchased at the onset. The main lures in purchasing life-story rights are exclusivity combined with the ability to obtain richer details not otherwise available. The characters can supply photographs, provide insight on events, and offer details of conversations held behind closed doors. “All you’re really buying is someone’s exclusive cooperation,” says Joseph Taylor, an entertainment partner at Liner Yankelevitz Sunshine & Regenstreif. “It doesn’t mean someone else can’t tell your story.” It also protects against lawsuits that could arise if a party is displeased. Litigation can crop up when rights aren’t purchased and subjects claim they were portrayed in a false light, or the film has disclosed something so private it deserves to be kept from the public. “Unless something is defamatory or invading privacy or really shown in a way that’s not accurate, the complaints don’t tend to go very far,” says Ann Loeb, a partner in Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan’s entertainment and media group. Individuals who sell rights for a movie deal can reserve the rights for a book, though a studio may ask them to wait until the movie has been released. In general, the subject is free to do a certain amount of publicity, such as appearing in news articles. But the contract will likely prohibit the individual from discussing the movie. Although the sale can bring in a chunk of cash, the dollar amount is relative. The Morgan Lewis lawyers declined to disclose their price. “For a coal miner it could be several years of income,” says Robert Darwell, the co-chairman of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton’s entertainment and media group. “For a lawyer with a nice practice it could be not that meaningful.” At the higher end, W. Mark Felt, now better known as Deep Throat, has sold the film and book rights to his life story to Universal Pictures and PublicAffairs for close to $1 million. In negotiations it’s important to specify the beginning and end points of one’s life story. You might not want to give away your entire life, says Darwell, who works on about 25 options a year. “These lawyers had this great case, but what if in 10 years from now, they have another extraordinary case?” he says. “Should the studio own that, too?” When movie plans move forward, privacy is thrown out the window. The subjects must share personal information such as diaries and notes. It’s also their job to make sure other ancillary characters such as relatives, friends, and co-workers cooperate. The studios will usually want to buy rights from less than a handful of key figures, but they’ll require releases from dozens of others whose lives are somehow intertwined. In some high-profile cases, such as the Amy Fisher story, the rights of the central characters might be divided among various studios. DEFENDING YOUR LIFE Once the subjects sign off, they often have little say on how the studios develop their stories. “They’ll want to dramatize it, combine characters, fictionalize events, and change it,” Darwell says. “Even the casting of the actors changes the tone of it.” That’s often a big concern for clients, says Patricia Mayer, a partner at Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp who has represented both buyers and sellers. “Movies will outlast you — if someone betrays you in a film, the image the public has is going to be based on that film,” she explains. “It’s a leap of faith to give someone else the right to make your personal life story.” When Mayer receives cold calls from people interested in selling their story, she offers a bit of advice: Don’t sell if you want to control how your story is told. “If you want control, you should write an autobiography, op-ed piece, or even a poem,” she says. The majority of people who end up selling their life rights for a movie fall into two categories, Mayer says: those who want to share with the world an event that changed them or those who want to share what they perceive as a tragedy of the world. For Cooney and Banks, the story appears to fit both — a 15-year crusade that not only changed their lives but opened their eyes to flaws in the judicial system, mismatched resources, and the real need for a pro bono commitment. After working on the case since they were associates in 1988, the acquittal was “the most incredible feeling you can imagine,” Cooney says. “It’s the best feeling I have ever had as a lawyer, without question.”
Kellie Schmitt is a reporter for The Recorder , the San Francisco-based ALM publication in which this article first appeared.

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