From Batkid to Mountain Gorillas, Hollywood Is Turning Hot Docs Into Features

Batkid Illo - P 2015
Illustration by: R. Kikuo Johnson

Batkid Illo - P 2015

Julia Roberts buys film remake rights in the latest deal as "blueprints to a story" replace books and articles and Sandra Bullock and Leo DiCaprio star in real-life tales.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It's hard to imagine a Julia Roberts movie deal going down at Slamdance, a film festival for those who think Sundance is too mainstream. But that happened Jan. 23, when the actress nabbed remake rights to the documentary Batkid Begins: The Wish Heard Around the World. The actress will produce a narrative feature based on the doc that chronicles the story of a 5-year-old boy with leukemia whose wish to be Batman for a day spawned a worldwide social-media phenomenon. Roberts will play the boy's mother, with CAA packaging the project for potential financiers.

Given the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction, Hollywood always has snapped up books, articles and even scholarly research (Interstellar) to adapt. But in the past 18 months, documentary remake rights have become the hot new source material for producers looking for an alternate path to tap into a true story.

"People are waking up and realizing that a documentary is like a blueprint that has already been created to a story," says Submarine's Josh Braun, who repped the Batkid Begins rights.

Though few documentaries have spawned features, there are exceptions, including the Heath Ledger-led Lords of Dogtown (based on Dogtown and Z-Boys) and the Christian Bale starrer Rescue Dawn (Little Dieter Needs to Fly). But a flurry of docs soon will migrate to big studio movies, from the Sandra Bullock vehicle Our Brand Is Crisis, which Warner Bros. will release in 2016, to Robert Zemeckis' Man on Wire remake, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing tightrope walker Philippe Petit in The Walk for TriStar (Oct. 2). Leonardo DiCaprio is developing a remake of his Oscar-nominated doc Virunga about African mountain gorillas.

The trend likely will continue. In December, Sony won a bidding war for remake rights to Tiller Russell's doc about dirty New York cops in the 1980s, The Seven Five, after the film premiered at the Doc NY festival (Megan Ellison is in negotiations to co-finance and co-produce). Tellingly, the doc itself generated far less heat when it sold later to Sundance Selects. Similarly, The Case Against 8, which chronicles the fight for same-sex marriage rights in California, also will get the feature treatment, say sources. The deal has yet to be announced because several of the doc's participants have not been notified.

Not surprisingly, film festivals like Sundance and Berlin have become a hot showcase for documentaries. "Even if you're not in the doc game, everyone is watching them because of the remake potential and the conversations that they spark," says Lia Buman, president of acquisitions at Focus Features. "The directors of docs are allowing so much drama to be put into their stories that you experience them like a narrative."

Last year at Sundance, the doc The Battered Bastards of Baseball sparked a frenzy — not for a distribution deal but for remake rights. Filmmaker Justin Lin beat several pursuers and will produce and self-finance an adaptation about the late Bing Russell, who in 1973 created America's only independent baseball team.

Options for documentary remake rights — which include the underlying story that the filmmakers created but not individual life rights — typically range anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000. Life rights often fetch a similar figure, but with some backend compensation included. With a particularly hot title, the price tag can escalate. For the Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man, producers were bidding in the high six figures for remake rights alone. But then the film's protagonist Rodriguez balked at selling his life rights, and talk of remaking the tale of two South Africans who pursue their musical hero evaporated. "A lot of people have talked to us about it, but Rodriguez would have to say yes, and he's a very particular guy," says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard.

For Oscar-winning doc 20 Feet From Stardom, multiple parties thought they had remake rights. When Radius-TWC nabbed the doc about backup singers at Sundance 2013, it tried to acquire remake rights as well. Instead, the estate of producer Gil Friesen, who died a month before the film debuted at the festival, retained remake rights but not life rights of such participants as Darlene Love. When news broke that Mick Jagger, who appears in the film, was in talks with Friesen's estate to make a TV series based on the doc, TWC insisted it alone had the rights. But dealmakers say TWC owns life rights but not remake rights. Shortly thereafter, Oprah Winfrey's OWN scooped up Love's life rights for a TV movie in a deal that involved TWC.

Still, even the biggest docs aren't always a good fit for remakes. Take Citizenfour, an Oscar nominee about Edward Snowden. "There are so many Snowden projects out there," explains Braun, who sold the film to Radius. "I don't think there has been any interest for the producers to try and sell these rights."