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Old July 21st, 2003, 01:30 AM   #1
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Making an autobiographical short film: How not to get sued

What exactly are the dangers of making a semi-autobiographical short film (90% based on fact with about 10% dramatization added)? If you change the names of the people involved, including yourself, still how much danger is there in the fact that the situation WILL be recognizable to the parties involved and to other friends and family that know about it?
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Old July 21st, 2003, 02:13 AM   #2
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as long as you tell it how it was then you cannot get sued for slander. That is the only problem I can see. because your not going to sue yourself.
Somethings you might change the names of people. I would as a lawyer if you can. If you cannot you might want to try to email someone who wrote an autobiography. They might have some insights.


good luck

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Old July 21st, 2003, 02:15 AM   #3
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I don't have a definitive answer, but I don't see how there could be a case against you even should you use real names, provided you don't defame anyone by portraying factually untrue things about them.

I'm aware of one famous case which would make me want to stick carefully to documented facts. In Bindrim v. Mitchell, nude encounter therapy group leader and clinical psychologist Dr. Paul Bindrim won damages (later reduced on appeal) for defamation (and breach of contract). In the case, it was found that novelist Gwen Davis's character in Touching was based on Bindrim. Davis had earlier attended nude marathons led by Bindrim and had signed a confidentiality agreement promising not to write about Bindrim or the sessions. With the aid of corroborating witnesses, the plaintiff's counsel convinced a jury that the character in Touching was indeed Bindrim, despite the differing name and description. Then, every line of dialogue, every attribute and action, all those things immanent to Davis's character that were not factually true about Bindrim, were treated as misrepresentations--each one was an instance of libel!

Possibly useful link I found on Google, that talks about this case and several others.
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Old July 21st, 2003, 04:06 AM   #4
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The only thing that really worries me is that one character is a real weiner, and a lot of what transpired happened only between the two of us with no other witnesses around...and guess what his occupation is now.

Ah, what the hell...it's all true...and if it ever came to litigation, I'd happily volunteer to have a polygraph done. I doubt he would.

(Thanks for the link, Robert. Interesting stuff.)
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Old July 21st, 2003, 02:12 PM   #5
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What are docudramas without bad guys?
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Old July 21st, 2003, 06:10 PM   #6
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Rule 1 - Anybody can sue you for anything. Whether or not their case has merit is another question but doesn't change the possibiltiy of incurring significant costs to fight it.

That being said, with the appropriate disclaimers, changes of names and so on, the chances of being sued diminish to very low and manageable levels.

I recall one bizarre case in which Gary Condit's wife threatened to sue NBC because she thought a Law and Order episode defamed her. Absurd, but she did threaten. I don't think the suit ever went forward.

http://www.suprmchaos.com/bcEnt-Fri-030802.index.html (scroll toward the bottom for the Condit piece.)
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Old July 21st, 2003, 06:35 PM   #7
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Quote:
as long as you tell it how it was then you cannot get sued for slander.
That's not quite right.

First, though truth is generally a defense to defamation (and this particular kind of defamation would be libel, not slander -- the latter is oral defamation), there is a particular species of the tort called "false light defamation." This results when a statement is made about a subject which, while technically true, results in in the subject being held in a false light. For example, if someone were to write, "On December 22nd, Paul Tauger walked down the street, away from the brothel," the implication is that there was some connection between myself and the brothel. The statement may be true, but it would still be defamatory.

Next, anyone can be sued by anyone at any time. The fact that the OP may believe he told it how it was doesn't mean that he won't be sued anyway. Defending a meritorious suit can be devastatingly expensive. There's also a question of proof -- it's one thing to say, "It didn't happen that way." It's another thing to prove it.

Finally, many states have right-of-publicity laws and invasion-of-privacy laws that could pertain.

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I don't have a definitive answer, but I don't see how there could be a case against you even should you use real names, provided you don't defame anyone by portraying factually untrue things about them.
California, among other jurisdictions, prohibits the commercial appropriate of name and likeness.

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Ah, what the hell...it's all true...and if it ever came to litigation, I'd happily volunteer to have a polygraph done.
Polygraph tests are inadmissible in court. If it's truly a pissing match as to the facts, it will all come down to the trier-of-fact's determination of credibility.

Sorry. This is one for the lawyers, not the people on this web forum. The extent to which there may be exposure to liability is highly fact-dependent. The best advice is take the script to a good entertainment lawyer, have him/her review it, and then determine whether any changes need to be made.
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Old July 21st, 2003, 06:58 PM   #8
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I'm in full agreement with Paul, one of the few members properly credentialed to comment on issues like these. However, I'm reminded of my father's more-frequent-than-occasional remark that he wished he'd attended business school after law school, rather than vice versa: "In business school, you learn what you can do. In law school, you learn what you can't do--they beat it into you: 'You can't do that! You'll get sued!'"

Managing risk is prudent practice; avoiding risk altogether amounts to mediocrity.

As Paul rightly recommends, consult a lawyer with your draft--but I say, don't let him or her dissuade you from speaking truth even if it means discomfiting a few pricks. Yes?
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Old July 21st, 2003, 07:01 PM   #9
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Managing risk is prudent practice; avoiding risk altogether amounts to mediocrity.
I agree with this completely. My post wasn't to suggest that the OP shouldn't do his film, but only that he find out what the risks are before making the determination whether to do it. Too much of my practice is devoted to first-time clients who come to me after they were sued, saying, "I had no idea this was a problem when I did it."
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