I only realized recently that many of the biopics we’ve covered here on S&A, especially in the last year or two, have all found themselves in the middle of squabbles over rights issues with, or approval/authorization from the real-life subjects of the biopics (if they’re alive), or those who control their estates, or other influential figures close to the subject with the power to create problems for the filmmakers and producers.
There was the Winnie Mandela project, starring Jennifer Hudson (the real Winnie didn’t approve; in fact, J-Hud, nor the filmmakers, even met with her), at least 2 Martin Luther King Jr films (Lee Daniels’ Selma especially; you’ll recall Andrew Young’s objections to any depictions of MLK that might hurt his image; and the King estate was said to be unhappy with the scripts); the Marvin Gaye films (Berry Gordy blocking film productions on the life of Marvin Gaye, for fear that he (Gordy) would be depicted negatively; he’s said to pretty much own the life rights to Marvin Gaye; and there was also Janis Gaye, the late singer’s second and last wife, who was vocal about her concerns of planned depictions of drug use, and other unflattering depictions of Gaye); there was the B.B. King project, which was to star Wendell Pierce, but the real B.B. King didn’t approve, and Pierce did say that he wouldn’t work on the project without King’s approval; the Jimi Hendrix film, starring Andre Benjamin (the Hendrix Estate didn’t authorize/approve the project, and didn’t allow the use of Hendrix’s original music in the film); and of course, most recently, the Nina Simone film starring Zoe Saldana, which also doesn’t have the authorization/approval from the Simone Estate.
There are others, but you get the picture.
I did a little research to see if I’d notice any trends with regards to biopics that were produced and released without the approval of the subject of the biopic (if they’re still alive, which is rare), or whomever controls the subject’s estate.
As you’d imagine, this isn’t information that one can easily find. There is no BiopicsThatWereReleasedWithoutApproval.com (or is there, maybe under a different name?). So, with the few projects I researched, I looked for mentions of whether the real-life people whose stories are being told (or the controllers of their estates, if they weren’t alive when the films were being made), approved of the projects.
And I can’t say I noticed a definite trend.
One thing I can say is that, it’s perfectly legal to make a film about a real-life person (dead or alive) without their approval and/or without acquiring their “life story rights.”
It’s not so simple however; there are complexities to this that I’m not qualified to speak on, but, from the research I did, the short answer is yes, you can do just that, AS LONG AS you’re willing to risk a lawsuit later on, which might get in the way, or slow down the eventual release of your film.
Read more: Tambay A. Obenson, Indie Wire