Hollywood Eyes Documentary Remakes for the Big Screen

Hollywood studios are buying up remake rights for buzzworthy documentaries like “Batkid Begins” at major film festivals, giving producers the rights to tell the story in feature-film form. Photo: Batkid Begins

“Batkid Begins,” a 2015 documentary about a 5-year-old boy battling cancer who asks the Make-A-Wish organization to help him masquerade as the caped crusader for a day, played in 14 theaters and collected less than $ 75,000 at the box office. Still, it landed on the radar of Warner Bros. and Julia Roberts, who are working to bring the story to the big screen—again.

While Hollywood has mined comic books and newspaper articles for inspiration for years, it has started looking at movies themselves, and a market has cropped up at major film festivals for the rights to turn buzzy documentaries into big-screen features.

The number of these deals is picking up as new buyers and popular documentaries such as “Making a Murderer” and “The Jinx” draw attention to what had been a declining genre. The number of remake deals isn’t tracked, but attorneys and agents who work with documentary filmmakers say remake rights are now part of nearly every contract and distribution agreement.

Also fueling the interest: Hollywood’s inclination to avoid making movies that don’t come with some existing level of awareness.

“Hollywood is always looking for source material, whether it is a magazine article or a book or an incredible true story,” said Josh Braun, a documentary producer who handled the “Batkid Begins” sale.

The remake rights to “Batkid Begins” were sold to Warner Bros.’s New Line Cinema division after its premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2015. That gave New Line and its producers the right to retell the story in feature-film form, with Ms. Roberts and other actors re-creating the narrative.

Throughout development for “Batkid Begins,” producers have access to documentary filmmaker Dana Nachman’s footage and her subjects—and all information they can use to craft their version of the story.

Securing remake rights to a documentary “jump-starts the writing and the development,” said Liesl Copland, an agent at the WME/IMG talent agency. “The character beats and arc are there.”

The cost of these remake rights vary, but typically are below six figures.

The facts contained in the documentaries are considered part of the public domain, said Los Angeles attorney Lisa Callif, meaning producers aren’t legally obligated to pay for the remake rights to create a feature version based on the same events. But doing so gives them more access to the documentary director, subjects and footage that didn’t make the final cut.

Acquiring the remake rights also allows producers to replicate the documentary’s narrative arc—a structure to the beginning, middle and end that is protected by copyright even if the general story is part of the public domain.

“In my mind, they’re buying writing,” said Alexandra Johnes, a producer on “Holy Hell,” a documentary about a California cult. The film’s producers sold distribution rights after the premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and are in talks with remake-rights suitors. By picking up remake rights, feature-film producers account for the “hardest part” of crafting a story, she said—putting all the pieces in order.

Several Hollywood features from the past year began as documentaries on the art-house circuit. “Man on Wire,” the critically acclaimed 2008 documentary about French performer Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between New York’s Twin Towers, became last year’s “The Walk,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Mr. Petit. “Our Brand is Crisis,” starring Sandra Bullock as a political strategist working in a Bolivian election, started as a 2005 documentary that screened at the South by Southwest festival.

Other high-profile documentaries in remake development include “Best of Enemies,” the 2015 documentary about sparring intellectuals William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal that Aaron Sorkin is set to adapt into a feature.

Twentieth Century Fox has closed a deal to make an animated version of “The Eagle Huntress,” a documentary about a teenage Mongolian eagle hunter that was an audience favorite at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. (Fox’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, FOX -0.38 % and News Corp. NWSA 0.94 % , owner of The Wall Street Journal, were until mid-2013 part of the same company.)

Remake-rights negotiations don’t lead to the multimillion-dollar acquisitions that grab headlines out of the film-festival circuit, but they can make distribution deals more lucrative for filmmakers who include them in the agreements, said Ms. Callif, whose firm, Donaldson & Callif, represents documentary filmmakers.

Most producers get an upfront payment for the remake option, and an additional fee if the project goes into production—a payout that typically is between 1% and 2.5% of the feature version’s budget, Ms. Callif said. Sometimes documentary filmmakers eventually get “back-end” payments up to 5% from the feature’s net profits, she added.

There also are legal safeguards a documentary filmmaker can get that producers have to consider. By securing the “life rights” to a subject, a documentary filmmaker gains exclusivity for a period ranging from several years to perpetuity—and permission to turn away outside producers who want to tell the story.

That is the case with “Making a Murderer,” the popular Netflix NFLX 1.32 % documentary series about Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who was released from prison after a wrongful conviction on sexual assault and other charges, and later tried for murder in a separate case.

“If a person wants to come along and make a movie off it, they have to go through the documentary producer,” said Ms. Callif, whose firm represents the filmmakers. “They can’t go to Steven Avery.”

Documentary filmmakers also hope a feature version of their story drives interest back to the original source. “It allows documentaries to have a bigger life,” said Ms. Nachman, the “Batkid Begins” director.

She noted a recent surge in social-media interest in her 2015 film after it started streaming on Netflix—a ricochet that would be even bigger with a Ms. Roberts version of the story in theaters.

Write to Erich Schwartzel at [email protected]


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