As a film student in early 2001, I was a juggernaut. I was making a lot of short films that were garnering moderate acclaim, and I was always pushing ahead, making bigger and bigger projects. For my senior thesis, I wanted to base it on a short story by Isaac Asimov, which was part of the compilation that made up the book “I, Robot”. Isaac had died a few years previous, but after a lot of badgering to the publishers, I was finally awarded with the home phone number of his wife, Janet.
I figured that the number I was given was just another publishing associate, so I dialed with thinly veiled skepticism. To my surprise, the voice that answered was a feeble, elderly woman. I struggled through my initial shock to explain that I was a student; I wanted to use her husband’s story as a basis for my project, and could I get her permission. She said that it sounded like fun, and gave me the number of the estate attorney, so I could get a written form that gave me the go-ahead. I called, I got permission, and they faxed the form to my professor’s office.
2 weeks later, 30 people showed up to help build sets, sew costumes, and make a little bit of history. Sadly, I let them all down.
In our last week of shooting, 3 months after I received written consent to use the short story, one of the crew brought in a copy of Variety, which mentioned that FOX purchased the book rights to I, Robot, and planned to make a film. Initially, I thought, “Awesome – free promotion!” Alas, that’s not what was looming on the horizon.
Part of the project was to make posters, trailers, and a website for the film. We even went so far as to create our own production company, as to look professional. Somehow the legal team from Fox found out about a student project, in Indiana, with no budget, being shot in a warehouse basement, and decided to issue a cease and desist order. Basically, what that means, is that Fox’s lawyers said to us, “You’re using our property. Stop, or we’ll sue you into the stone age.” I responded by sending them the consent form from the Asimov estate, and explained that it was a student project, not a commercial venture worth litigating. I turned over our script, our shooting notes, our shot list, copies of our tapes and even the concept art drawings.
Instead of the letter recognizing our valiant efforts as students that I expected, I found myself on the tail end of a phone call that changed my life. I was contacted directly by the lead of Fox’s legal team, who explained my situation to me very clearly. He told me that I was technically in my legal right to use Isaac Asimov’s material. However, if I chose to proceed, they would file multiple lawsuits totaling over 2 million dollars against me. In the end, I might win, but it would take hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees just to fight it, but it would cost Fox nothing. It would be 10 years before any type of verdict could be levied, and by then it wouldn’t even matter.
I was 22. I was working 2 jobs, making about $9 an hour, in addition to attending school. I had taken out every student loan I could get to finance my film, which totaled about $10,000 in debt. I had spent my last dollar to buy breakfast for the crew on the last day of shooting. I was properly fucked. I caved.
In the end, my professors had sympathy on me. They had visited the set, seen the dailies, and recognized my talent and dedication. I graduated with honors, without ever turning in a senior thesis project. I guess that they assumed I had learned the most valuable of all life lessons.
Looking back, I can recognize that the lawyers were only doing their job. The same applies for the tank drivers in Tienanmen Square. The busboys on the Titanic. The janitors at Auschwitz.
To Fox, I was only worth a couple of hours of an intern’s time, and a 10 minute phone call. To me, they completely pulled the rug out from underneath the career that I’d been trying to carve out for myself. Without a thesis project, I couldn’t apply to grad schools, and by the time I’d recuperated from the costs I’d incurred, I’d already been forced to accept a different career path, and rearranged my life to fit. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a fairly successful career designing web sites for major entities, and I make a decent living. I was willing to pick up and start over, but I can’t help but harbor resentment for having my wings clipped so early, and so unjustly.
My story is not unique, nor is it very interesting. I’m one of many that have had a short end of the stick handed to them by a big faceless monster, and I feel that it’s my right and responsibility to take that short bit and fight back. One download at a time.
I get to watch the studios systematically destroy the art of film. One download at a time.
I get to defy the system in my own petty way. One download at a time.
I want to watch it burn. One download at a time.
***edit – I still have the exterior production model in my attic. This will give some idea as to the scale and quality that we shot. It’s about 6 feet long: http://imgur.com/a/NOTyU#0
Here’s a clip from the film (keep in mind that it was editing from 640×480 daily reels, ten years ago): http://youtu.be/M6j8dtHaokg
(There’s a lot blacked out, since I had to cut all the title stuff, names, etc…)