Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Vol 4 No. 52 How Did Louis Zamperini's Story Make It's Way to the Silver Screen?

July 11, 2014

While breathlessly waiting for the next installment of our 1964 Olympics coverage, I received a query from Bob Schul whom we will hear more about shortly.   Bob asked if Louis or his estate would be getting a cut of the proceeds or rights to his story.    Before trying to answer that intriguing question, I had to ask myself, from where rights and revenue may be coming.  Some of you may be able to answer this question better than me, and I encourage you to send us some opinions and /or facts.  First,  coming home a war hero/survivor, Louis had a story. Every soldier has a story, but whether it has some commercial value is another question.   Well, in Louis' case it appears from an L.A. Times article which I will link below that he indeed derived  some financial benefit eleven years after returning home.   Universal Studios paid him $8,000.00 for the rights to make a film of his life in 1956.  It turned out that it would take another 56 years to get the film made.  The problem seemed to be that Louis' life was just too big for the movies.  Scripts and ideas were bounced around for years at Universal, and the story was eventually back burnered then forgotten.    In the meantime a book  "Devil At My Heels" would come out a few years later, but then Laura Hillenbrand wrote the bestseller  "Unbroken, A WWII Story of Survival,Resilience, and Redemption"  which made a lot of money.  It had a good shot at doing so, based on the fact that her previous book, "Seabiscuit" was a best seller and made into a commercially viable film.

I"ve so far found no reference to whether Louis and Laura Hillenbrand's publisher had made any financial arrangement.  But I will keep looking.   Probably the $8,000.00 that Louis got in 1956 was  for the film rights.  Those rights may have changed hands over the years, but Louis had sold them for the $8,000, and probably had no more claim to them.  It's a legal question whether a book that would be turned into a film had created a new set of rights to be valued and sold and whether the human subject of the story had any ownership.   The article below mentions that with the $8,000, Louis purchased a house in the Hollywood Hills, and it turned out that he lived very close to Angelina Jolie who will be directing the film, so Louis didn't make out too badly from the sale.

Check out this story that appeared in the L.A. Times several months  ago about the history of the making of the film.


You can also see the film trailer to "Unbroken" at the link below.  It is scheduled for release on December 25, 2014.   http://www.unbrokenfilm.com/

Since writing this posting a good friend, former teammate at the University of Oklahoma, and lawyer Walt Mizell responded to my request for an opinion.

George,  It's impossible to say what rights Zamperini's heirs or estate might have right now, without reviewing the contract he signed with Universal 56 years ago.  It could have had a cut-off date like a oil well drilling contract, that provided that if they didn't do anything with the story within "x" years, their license terminated.  Or it could have provided that they could use anything that had occurred in his life up to the time the contract was signed.  Of course, Laura Hillenbrand's book goes well beyond his war years. I would think that her publisher would have checked out whether the contract he signed in 1956 (1958?) would impact their right to publish her work.

I'd like to give you  a better analysis than this, but all I can really do is refer you to the starting point, namely whatever it was he sold back in the '50's.

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