True Life Stories Produced for Television
Selling true life stories for adaptation as a Made-For-TV-Movie, Drama Series, Docuseries, or Reality TV Series.
Life is stranger than fiction, and often more entertaining. Many times we’ve seen the feature film, television movie, or even dramatic series based on a persons true life story. In television we’re familiar with the biographical made-for-tv-movies that virtually every network produces. These stories can span genres from an against-all-odds miracle story that takes place in a small town with otherwise regular folk as the hero, or an epic mini-series that brings new insight to a popular historical figure we all thought we knew. Any of these examples of dramatized life stories can be adaptations of best-selling biographies. But for the purposes of understanding this genre as it relates to selling a person’s life story to the Hollywood television industry, it is necessary to focus on the marketing of a persons life experiences/ profession/ or specific event that they believe would translate into an intriguing television project.
Before discussing the narrative aspect of adapting a person’s life story for sale, it is important to understand the legalities involved so that you can be sure you have the right to sell yours or another person’s life story rights.
If you are telling the story of your life, or a period in your life, you have the right to negotiate for sell your experiences as they are substantiated by your own record or common knowledge of others. If you are selling the life experiences of another person for adaptation as a film, you will need to have an “option” agreement with that person. In it’s most basic form, for the purposes of simply being able to find a buyer (producer or production company) an option agreement can be outlined in a simple deal memo. You should be given “Exclusive Right” to sell that person’s life story rights to any third party producer, company or distributor for the purposes of developing and producing a televised or theatrical production to be publicly aired and released. More specific details of partnership and participation should be resolved between yourself and the person whose life story rights you are selling before you ever approach any third party. You do not want to get a buyer interested and not be able to legally deliver the product you are pitching. If you would like more specific advice or information regarding industry standards for this issue or any other partnership agreements for selling a project, we recommend consulting an entertainment attorney.
So lets assume you are selling yours or a friends amazing life story to be optioned by a production company, and you are now piecing together a treatment or synopsis for presentation. There are three key elements that are very important to any development executive or producer considering your project; the story, the key character, and the commercial viability of the project:
Event or Story : There are always moments or dramatic events in our lives that are so incredible one could think “this should be a movie!”. However, one event does not make a dramatic story unto itself, and many times a dramatic story does not suit well for a televised or filmed adaptation. However, such specific events can become the focal point by which a larger dramatic story is told that a producer or network may take an interest in. How has that event changed someone’s life? What led to the event or events, and what new course were the people or persons involved set on? What is the point of social relevance within this story? What does the main character overcome or accomplish that brings redemption or irony to their life? As you will always see, it is never just about an event. It’s always about the person.
Identify the protagonist (Hero, or main character) from whose point of view the story is told. This is perhaps the most important choice when adapting a story to be dramatized. It may not always be the most obvious or centralized character when first looking at the story that is being covered, but it should be the most unique. And it is that person’s story arc that we will witness as the movie unfolds.
What makes a unique protagonist?: People love inspirational stories of the underdog who survives against all odds. It more often gives the viewer something to relate to and root for. It is an example of a choice in Protagonist that brings an emotional experience to the audience.
When exploring the development of a unique protagonist or main character in your story, there are some very important choices to make when illustrating this person within a screenplay, and more importantly, when giving limited information in a three to seven page treatment that you will submit to producers. If you look at all the great character-driven pieces you will see that what is explored in each protagonist is not just the obvious, but sometimes the opposite. In a hero, don’t just focus on the great qualities, but find his weaknesses and downfalls. This gives him a human quality. Conversely, in a main character who is primarily bad or of criminal persuasion, find his qualities that are good and explore his struggle within his poor choice making in life. This helps an audience care or sympathize with someone whose agenda may be clearly bad, but brings truth to the story by “humanizing it”. Nothing is black and white. To bring a three dimensional illustration to any main character of a story, one needs to approach that character with no assumptions and ready to discover all sides of the person and what makes them tick.
Commercial Viability: An important aspect of any dramatized story is that audiences love stories that are based on true events. The important thing for any writer or producer to understand in trying to sell a true life story for adaptation is knowing or discovering what issue or subject within the story has social relevance at this time. These “issues” of social relevance can be anything, eg. How a family copes with a son or daughter fighting a war, same sex couples fighting for adoption, or an athlete who overcomes certain death by cancer and survives to come back and win the most grueling athletic event in the world. All of these stories have issues that impact society heavily or in a unique way. If you believe that your personal story, or the story of a person whose life you are writing into a treatment for adaptation could have the same impact of relevance it is important to find that key issue and point of view that an audience will be enthralled by. The audience wants an emotional experience that they can relate to on some level. Find that message in your story and you may garner the attention of producers who want to develop it into a movie or series.