This is a long story about why I think a New York production company, stole my life story and sent it to the a major TV network for a scripted TV show named eerily close to my own blog name.
In an attempt to condense it, I’m going to summarize a hell of a lot of conversations. And then I’ve written THIS post for those of you who want some advice on how to avoid getting your story/intellectual property/research stolen from a production company/TV network. You should also read this post by Toni at Fashion Cloud if you’re considering working with a big brand to hear her story.
Here’s the rundown between me and the company and why I think they stole my life story:
Early 2012 I was in touch with a production company who was recruiting for a documentary for TV about cults. Well, my blog is named My Cult Life and I have a pretty fantastic story, so of course I was interested. I actually had been working with some cult survivors who wanted to be on TV, so I wanted to suggest some of my reader’s stories to the company in an effort to get more visibility to the damage cults can do.
Fast forward a few weeks and the casting director perks up when I talk to him about the work I did exposing Mercy Ministries, which operates like a cult (although that term may not best describe them, they do some very scary stuff like exorcise demons out of anorexics and the mentally ill). This person got excited when they heard that I was a blogger turned investigative journalist and wanted to hear more.
For several more weeks, we discussed the details of how I investigate cults and high-demand groups, and bits of my own cult story but I insisted I wouldn’t follow through without a contract stating I would get credited for all the expert consulting work and research I was doing; not to mention writing and developing an entire show. I got a verbal promise from them and I had an entire paper trail stating my ideas were my property and not to be shared without my consent. I left a very hefty paper trail.
All of a sudden (*eye roll*) things start moving quickly. They already had a network committed but the network wanted to hear more about my story, not the other people they had interviewed. I started wondering what the hell was going on. Why would I be the star of a TV show? I’m not famous; although I would make a great “Dog the Bounty Hunter”. Ha! Why weren’t they asking to interview the several other people I had suggested, some of whom had very compelling stories. Those people didn’t even get a phone call back. It made no sense.
So the casting director interviews me extensively via Skype and that was sent to the ‘executives’ at the network. They loved it. Now they wanted to film what they called a presentation, which the network was supposed to use to decide whether they would purchase the show–at least that’s what production company told me. Had I listened to the couple of lawyers I spoke to early on in all of this, I would’ve backed off then. I was star struck, unfortunately. All the lawyers I talked to said you should never go on camera for a production company without a written agreement or at least a signed consent form, and they suggested this production company sounded very shady and dishonest.
Enter the Head of Casting & Talent for the production company who was supposed to send me the contracts and review legal with me. I still didn’t have a contract at this point and now I was getting switched to a new person in the company. I expressed that I wouldn’t move forward without a contract and payment for my work for the presentation/pilot. After all, up to this point, I’d worked for months giving them ideas, information and research. I started emailing lawyers (having never had the need for one, I jumped in headfirst to all this) and finally found one.
My lawyer and the Head of Casting discussed the situation and my lawyer started handling all communication between her and me. She kept calling me and emailing me, but I let my lawyer handle it.
I got a contract in hand the day we filmed. It was shitty. It was 16 pages of shit. I got it partially reviewed by two high-profile lawyers in LA and they said that was one of the worst contracts they’d ever seen. I had no idea. I’m not an actress or a celebrity. I’m a writer and an English major. Negotiations were never my strong suit. At some point someone pointed out the shitiness of the contract by one of the paragraphs that said if I were to die while filming, they weren’t going to be held liable. Um, death? By reality TV show?
I rejected the first contract and they sent a second. It was also shitty. Again, I got it reviewed by two lawyers, plus my own. We decided to make it work and build on it from where they had it.
Weeks of negotiations started and then the production company’s lawyer stepped in. My lawyer, the Head of Casting, and their lawyer went back and forth for days. We ended up with a much better version of the shitty contract but still a piece of crap.
I was getting ready to sign. Although the pay was low, the network wanted to secure me for six years so I was sure I could renegotiate after the second year. My dad’s friends had recently wrapped the first season of Bering Sea Gold and I knew quite a bit about the money/negotiations and how they had been able to renegotiate.
The casting director and Head of Casting told me their production company had a huge role in creating Lauren Conrad’s career, as well as Snooki. They were both extremely famous and their brands were huge. Of course I was flattered that they thought (and told me) I would be the next big brand.
I was incredibly naïve. Looking back, I can remember certain moments when I caught the both in lies. I often confronted them on this, and I thought I was relatively safe because of the paper trail I’d left, the video footage I had at home, and the trail between my lawyer and theirs with the contract.
But what happened later threw me for a loop and I’m still not sure how this all happened to me.
After weeks of negotiations, I was happy enough with the contract and the opportunity to sign. The day I was going to accept their offer, my lawyer called and told me the deal was off. Apparently and all of a sudden, he was told that the network backed out because it was too dangerous. This didn’t make sense to me, since we’d planned this for months and they knew months prior that certain plans would be risky. Why back out now? Filming was supposed to start in mere days.
I knew I’d been taken for a ride and my story had been stolen right then and there. I was devastated, but I was in denial that people would be this shitty, especially after I’d shared my deepest, most painful life experiences with them. Talk about having your vulnerabilities exploited.
I had worked day and night for over two years building my brand and my platform because my childhood dream of being an author required you develop an online presence to be more appealing to publishers. After two years, my platform building was where I wanted it to be (Platform being audience, readership, and maintaining a social media presence). A TV show would only help to get publishers interested, and would help sell books. Most writers don’t have the luxury to sell books that way, and I felt fortunate to be able to do so.
I should’ve known it was all a scam. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Earlier in the year, I had a Google alert pop up for a new TV show named eerily similar to my own blog name. I got sick to my stomach. There wasn’t much information out there on the show…just that it’d been greenlit. I knew nothing about scripted TV or how the industry worked but I confronted the person I’d dealt with the next day. He blew me off with an air of confidence: “No, that’s a scripted show. This is a docu-series. They’re entirely different.”
I got aggressive and demanded to know if he was sending my footage to them for research. Again, he assured me I had nothing to worry about.
Judging from the head writer’s Tweets and the timing of my work and filming, the “executives” who loved me and my ideas could very well have been the writers from show. When I recall certain conversations about the network—like really interrogating the casting staff about the network’s lack of reality TV shows on the air and the inconsistencies that popped up constantly—there’s just so much evidence that this happened. Or the day the writer Tweeted about some exciting new story lines falling into place with my own videos arriving at the network—it’s just all very suspicious.
Now, of course, I could be entirely wrong. Maybe I really was going to be the next Snooki or Lauren Conrad as they said said. But seriously? Probably not.
About a month after the network backed out, I read the synopsis of this TV show, Cult.
Skye, one of the main characters, is a researcher and blogger (ahem, that’s what I do, ironically enough) and the other lead, Jeff, is an investigative journalist (I spent twelve hours talking on film about my investigative journalism, oddly enough). Oh and the line, “cat-and-mouse game between charismatic cult leader[s]” was verbatim what I said on my video interview. Wow. Isn’t that coincidental?
You hear that this happens all the time. I know now that it does. I feel a lot of guilt for not seeing this coming; for getting caught up in the dream of having my own TV show. I feel duped and robbed.
Mostly I feel angry. I feel angry and naive.
My life story is all over the internet now, thanks to my bright idea of blogging. It’s created a thriving community of readers and friends and paved the way for me to begin to work toward social changes that are near to my heart, but it’s clear to me now how easily ideas can be stolen from you and how predatory producers will come in and steal your life story without batting an eye.
I’ve definitely learned some significant lessons about ideas and intellectual property and I’ve posted some detailed advice (and the contracts presented to me) here.
If you have any questions or are going through something similar, please feel free to email me at info [at] mycultlife [dot] com.