By Allen B. Ury
Intellectual property – or IP, as it is more commonly called – is the common currency of today’s entertainment industry. IP can take any number of forms. It can be a published novel, a comic book, a magazine article or even a board game! An IP can be original material such as a screenplay, a self-published book or a short story. In short, an IP is any creative work that you own and can patent or copyright.
Where do you find marketable IPs? The first place to look is your own imagination. Many IPs are based on original material. Failing that, IPs can be found everywhere. Libraries are filled with filmable books. If you find one that sparks your imagination, contact the publisher’s rights department and ask how you can acquire the film and TV rights. Read newspapers and magazines. If you find a true story that’s unusually dramatic, contact the reporter who wrote it. Remember, the timelier the story, the better! And in all cases, consult an entertainment lawyer before moving forward with any specific project.
Once you have developed or acquired an IP, the next question is, what do you do with it? Do you try to develop it as a movie? A TV series? A documentary? Is this a potential studio blockbuster motion picture or maybe just a web series or a podcast? The choices seem endless.
The fact is, choosing the right home for your project can be just as crucial to its success as its execution. And the development path you select depends largely on what you have to sell and exactly what it is you’re trying to achieve.
When choosing how best to develop your intellectual property, ask yourself:
What is the nature of your IP? In industrial design, they say that form follows function. The same goes for IP. If your IP is basically a short story – real or fictional – with a clear beginning, middle and end, then it’s probably best to think of it in terms of a feature film or documentary. If the IP is more novelistic but still closed-ended, that suggests a feature, a limited TV series, a web series or a multipart podcast. If the idea is more situational, more open-ended, then perhaps you’re looking at a TV series. Let the nature of your project dictate its final form.
What’s the budget – and who’s going to pay for it? While it’s possible for even “small” projects to cost tens of millions of dollars to produce when A-list stars and directors are attached, the physical demands of a property are still the primary determinant of its budget and, therefore, the production entity that backs it. If you have a small, intimate story with just a few locations and principal characters, you probably want to take the independent feature route or seek financing from a streaming platform like Hulu or Netflix. On the other hand, if you have a big action project or a science fiction extravaganza, you probably have no choice but to go straight to the major studios. Depending on your IP’s requirements, you may also have the option of pursuing individual investors or even self-financing. Thanks to the democratization of production technology, many web series and podcasts are being done – and done successfully – on the thinnest of shoestring budgets.
What’s your project’s purpose? Not all IP development ventures are conceived as being finished products ready for public consumption. Many directors – and writers – produce bare-boned short videos merely to serve as “calling cards” or proof-of-concept vehicles they can use to raise financing for more expanded treatments or to secure work on other projects. If you have an IP you think has a lot of potential but may be a hard sell due to its unusual nature, you may want to develop it in steps, making a small, low-budget version first and then leveraging that to get a feature or series sale – or even just a manager!
What do you want to get out of this? Everybody wants to make money. But sometimes, money is not a project’s primary objective. Maybe it’s more important that you have creative control, a chance to get your vision in front of the public the way you want it realized. If so, the studio feature or broadcast TV route is definitely not the path to pursue, as both are notorious for their top-down control hierarchies and collaborative systems of production. If you’re a writer or director who wants your product to maintain creative fidelity, trying to develop your IP as a low-budget web series or even a podcast may deliver the kind of satisfaction you seek. The market for content has never been greater. At the same time, the number of options available requires people who own IPs to be more circumspect than ever when it comes to marketing their material. Choosing the right path can put you on the road to fame and fortune. The wrong path can lead to nothing but frustration and despair.
So choose wisely.