His firm gives him a last chance. Well known for his knowledge of intellectual property rights, he is one of the few lawyers in America that major movie studios rely on to provide letters of opinions to lenders that the legal framework for a movie is in order.
The firm sends him to Hollywood to provide an opinion letter for United Pictures with regard to the latest movie in their very profitable Spykiller series of films.
What could be a straightforward review and opinion is complicated by the author of the screenplay, Bert Cobb, refusing to sign a transfer of his rights to the studio. The transfer will allow the studio to make the movie.
In decades past studios had gained transfers informally by such means as putting on a check to the screenwriter that if the cheque was cashed the rights were transferred. With Cobb the studio had been unable to find any paper that could be construed a transfer.
The transfer is needed because of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision “ruling that to call a freelancer an employee was not enough to make him one”.
Cobb, well into his senior years, is still working outside Los Angeles as a photographer. Despite modest means he turns down significant offers from the studio.
Studio executives press Seeley to find a way to write the opinion without Cobb’s signature. He refuses. He may be an alcoholic and his personal life a mess but he retains his professional integrity.
Seeley’s exploration into the writing of the original Spykiller movie stretches back 50 years.
Seeley, after meeting Cobb, doubts Cobb wrote the screenplay. He wonders if Cobb is a front. The screenplay was written during the 1950’s when the Hollywood blacklist was preventing many screenwriters from getting contracts. To make a living numerous writers had someone, not even a writer on occasion, be their front and sign that they had written the script instead of the actual writer.
Yet no blacklisted writer has ever claimed he or she wrote the screenplay.
Pressure is building on all involved to reach a resolution. A camera crew is ready to commence filming.
Yet it is not a world of black and white between the studios and the Artists Rights Alliance. Relationships between studio heads and the leadership of the Alliance are as complicated as all Hollywood relationships.
It was fascinating to read about how important a single page document, the transfer of rights, can be within a multi-billion dollar industry.
When negotiations falter violence ensues. I thought the violence unnecessary. Perhaps only lawyers see an abundance of tension in the issues of authorship and blacklisted writers. Much as I love reading about legal conflicts I expect this book would not have been published without some violence.
I admire Goldstein’s ability to make intellectual law gripping mystery fiction. My next post will look at reading the series of Michael Seeley books in reverse order.
(I said in my last post I would discuss what happens to Seeley’s battle with alcohol abuse. On travelling to Los Angeles he stops drinking. While he has yet to truly admit alcohol controls him he is trying to address his alcohol abuse. I know of few people as deep into alcohol as Seeley who were able to stop drinking on their own but I was glad to read of his intention to be sober.)
****Goldstein, Paul - (2013) - Havana Requiem and Goldstein's reaction on winning the Harper Lee Prize; (2014) - A Patent Lie and Patents and Vaccines and Ethics; (2018) - Errors and Omissions