To no one’s surprise, there is going to be a made-for-TV film about serial fabulist and no ex-congressperson George Santos. In Santos’s case, the film will be based on a book on his life that was released last week.
A book about the improbable rise and rapid fall of former congressman George Santos has been optioned by HBO Films, it was reported Saturday, and will be produced under the guidance of Frank Rich, a former New York Times columnist known for executive production credits on Emmy awards-winning Succession and Veep.
HBO reportedly optioned the rights to Mark Chiusano’s The Fabulist: The Lying, Hustling, Grifting, Stealing, and Very American Legend of George Santos, published last week.
“He is someone who is clearly very ambitious and wants to live a kind of wealthy life, a life of fame and notoriety, and he is trying to attain essentially a version of the American dream, which so many people have sought over the years,” Chiusano said.
According to Deadline, the adaptation of The Fabulist will be written by Mike Makowsky, who wrote the screenplay of HBO’s crime drama Bad Education, and will tell the “Gatsby-esque journey of a man from nowhere who exploited the system, waged war on truth and swindled one of the wealthiest districts in the country to achieve his American Dream”.
There seems to be a huge market for true-life stories that are ripped from the headlines as can be seen from the popularity of true-crime podcasts. The stories of con artists and the people they swindle are almost guaranteed large audiences, and producers like to do them quickly while the story is still fresh in people’s minds.
I had been under the impression that in order to do a TV story about a living person, you had to buy the rights to it from that person, and so it seemed like the fraudster gets another chance to make money off their swindles, which did not seem right even if Santos needs money to pay the legal bills to defend himself from the many criminal charges that he faces. But it turns out the situation is more complicated, that while getting the rights is not strictly necessary, doing so has benefits.
Life story rights are a bundle of releases and permissions that studios can acquire when they want to tell a story about a real person, but technically, legal experts say that life story rights aren’t an absolute requirement.
“No one needs life story rights to do a movie about anybody,” said Bryan Sullivan, entertainment lawyer and founding partner at Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae.
But buying the life story rights from someone guarantees they won’t sue studios for defamation, invasion of privacy or publicity rights.
At the same time, life rights can come with exclusive access.
“You’re often getting cooperation,” Romano said.
“It could include access to diaries, emails, documents, and all sorts of other information,” Sullivan said.
“You really have the legitimacy of telling a story,” Lin said.
But while the person may get quite a lot of money for signing away the rights (Anna Sorokin, the woman who pretended to be a German heiress and conned a large number of friends, socialites, and hotels, got $320,000 for the Netflix series on her life), they may not get to keep it for themselves. Since criminals aren’t allowed to profit off their crimes, the money Sorokin got from Netflix was mostly used to pay back banks and settle fines.
So how much would the rights to Santos’s story be worth?
“It’s kind of arbitrary to be really honest,” Lin said.
“There is no math to this,” Sullivan said. “It is an art form about what they’re willing to take.”
“It’s actually how many bidders you have and how exposed a story is,” Romano said.
Experts say life story rights typically made up 2 to 5% of a budget, but the rise of streaming is making the market a little more competitive and upping the price for high-profile stories. If the cost is too high, studios may instead start weighing risk.
“There have been cases where an individual sued a production company or studio, and they lost, and the film was allowed to move forward and there was never a penny paid for those life rights,” Romano said.
The person can continue to milk their story even after they sell the film rights but the shelf life of such stories is not very long. While the Netflix series about Sorokin was a huge success (I watched it), any new telling of those same events is not likely to garner much interest.
So Santos needs to get as much as he can the first time around so that he can hope to repay all the people he swindled.
UPDATE:: John Oliver says that Santos really needs his own reality TV show.