From a Producer's Perspective: How to Find and Acquire Intellectual Property

by David Kaufmann - updated on January 21, 2019

The most exciting and hardest part about the content business is that it’s an industry that is primarily rooted in creative ideas. We aren’t selling widgets, government backed bonds or anything that can be measured by a P/L. As we discussed in the last blog, this makes financing difficult and risky. So how can we take our original ideas and make them feel more tangible? We can do so by backing them up with already existing intellectual property.

David Kaufmann goes even deeper in his book, The Producer's Brain. Get it on Amazon now.

One of my favorite commercials ever, from the brilliant Beth Comstock at GE, is about a very ugly looking monster called an “Idea” being shunned from the world. It’s only after the proper care that people begin to see its beauty. You can watch the spot here:

People are often turned off by ideas that seem different, especially when they are coming from unknown sources. It’s much easier to sell high-level creative pitches when you are already viewed as an expert. I learned early on in my career as a producer that if I wanted to be taken seriously, I needed something more than my own original thoughts. Luckily, I had spent nearly a decade deep in the intellectual property licensing business at Major League Baseball. I could write a whole other blog about career-change and identifying transferrable skills, but generally, think about skills that you already possess and how they can elevate you towards your goals. 

So how do you go about finding intellectual property?

You have to be a hunter. For most of us, the content that we’ll be able to acquire is going to be found on a road less traveled. As much as you might love the new Dan Brown book it’s probably not realistic to think that you are going to win a bidding war against the major players in town to acquire those rights. That being the case, we need to take a Moneyball (a film near and dear to my heart) style approach when thinking about IP. As quoted from the film: 

“There are rich teams and there are poor teams.  Then there is 50 feet of crap and then there’s us.  It’s an unfair game.”

As Billy did with the 2002 Athletics, we’ve got to look for opportunities in the places that no one else is searching. There are a lot of strategies as to how to go about this, but generally, mining for older titles or articles that have been overlooked or forgotten is the best place to start. Another strategy is to think of a great creative idea for a script and then look for a piece of IP that you can back into it. Say you are obsessed with the world of professional bull riding…well, there’s likely been a great feature article or biography written. Go find it! 

So you’ve found something that you love, now what?

You’ve got to research the author or publisher and hunt them down. You’ll likely have a lot of false starts when you set out down this path. The material that you seek might have already been optioned. The author might not have interest in working on a film project or the rights might be complex and split amongst many parties. You also might not be able to find the rights holder. Pinning down an IP owner takes a lot of hustle and a little bit of serendipity, but if you love the work that they’ve done, you’ll find a way. Which brings me to my next point… 

If you are going to ask for someone else’s IP you need to be committed to doing the work.

You wouldn’t like it if a producer optioned your script and then did absolutely nothing with it. It’s not fair to you or your work. Have a real plan for how you’d like to adapt the material before you reach out and be serious about executing it. In this business it’s impossible to know where a given project will go, so commit to promising what you can control: Maximum Effort. If, in your heart, you aren’t willing to promise this, keep looking. 

I’ve found material and talked with the author. We definitely want to work together, now what? 

You need to memorialize your understanding with a contract. I know contracts can be scary but they are just English, same as a script. You can either do an option agreement where you formally take control of the material, normally with money involved, or a shopping agreement, a looser understanding that allows you exclusivity for a period of time while you try to hustle your project to reality. I normally opt for shopping agreements because they are fast and simple and allow you to get to work right away with a basic understanding. 

Where do I find one of these agreements?

There are many templates available that you can download and work with on your own, or you can hire a lawyer to help you out. Legal work is a bit expensive but may be worth it (at least initially) to develop a personal agreement that you are comfortable with. In the end, all the contract represents is a written understanding of what you’ve agreed to on the phone or in person, so try to keep things as simple as possible. A contract is only worth as much as the personal trust you place in your partners and they place in you, so be the type of partner you’d like to have for yourself… hard working, honest and kind. 

Finding and acquiring rights takes a lot of legwork, but when you take your IP based idea out into the world, it’ll appear a little less scary and you’ll be well on your way to making something beautiful.  

Next time, we’ll explore how to think about budget and genre choice before you start writing.

David Kaufmann is an independent film and television producer living in Los Angeles. He began his career as an NBC Page at Saturday Night Live. He spent over nine years handling film and television licensing and development at Major League Baseball where he helped create critically acclaimed films like Moneyball and 42. He has an undergraduate degree in Journalism from the University of Richmond and holds an MBA from NYU Stern with a focus on the media business and creative producing. He is an active member of the Producers Guild of America. For more on David, please visit his IMDB or LinkedIn.

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