Rihanna and Lupita Nyong’o are going to star in a movie written by Issa Rae and directed by Ava DuVernay, and it’s all because of the internet. Wired thinks that should happen more often. Wired also has no idea how any such fan-sourced movies should actually compensate or credit those random souls online who essentially pitch a story to a producer for free and then watch them steal it and give it to a professional screenwriter. But, yay, wave of the future?
Let’s back up.
Three years ago, this picture of celebrities looking stylish and focused at a fashion show popped up:
And the xtremecaffeine Tumblr re-posted it with the following caption about Rihanna and Lupita: “They look like they’re in a heist movie with Rihanna as the tough-as-nails leader/master thief and Lupita as the genius computer hacker.”
Elisabeth Olsen, on the other hand, apparently looks like nothing and has no part to play in this story. Actually, she does look a tad robot-y there, and Xtreme’s description of Rihanna and Lupita is hilariously spot-on, which is why it went viral and made its way to Black Twitter where the idea was fleshed out even more into a full-fledged caper flick.
Because that’s just what we like to do on the internet. Remember how quickly the internet turned this:
Moreover, we just want to feel like our opinion matters, and that our idea about who should play such and such character in whatever movie actually has a chance of happening. Never mind that we are none of us professional casting directors and have a shitty history with responding to high profile casting decisions.
But sometimes a good idea is a good idea. Thus, Netflix is currently developing the Rihanna/Lupita movie. The streaming service won’t comment on it, though. It’s believed they bought the rights at Cannes, but no one knows who they could have purchased those rights from. A group of bloggers and Twitter users who most directly contributed to the idea behind this soon-to-be film have banded together to track which of them (if any) ends up being contacted by someone connected to the production. At the time of this writing, none of them have, although there’s been a vague promise that they’ll be credited in some capacity, perhaps in the “Thank You” section of the closing credits.
Hold on, though. Can Netflix just steal their idea like this?
Absolutely. According to the intellectual property lawyer Wired contacted, “What was proposed was an idea—a genre of film and a casting choice. It’s up to the studio, in this case Netflix, to engage a screenwriter and take that idea and flesh it out to create a protectable expression. The idea of doing a heist movie isn’t protectable. Heist movies are a genre and vary widely, from Ocean’s 11 to Baby Driver.”
So, this isn’t HitRecord. You’re not being recruited by Joseph Gordon-Levitt to start something that other people around the world will finish with the promise that everyone along the line will be credited and compensated. No, you try to fancast something into existence and you are consenting to act as both an unpaid focus group participant and story writer whose only reward will be seeing something you thought up actually happen.
And that might be enough. As New York-based writer Mikelle Street told Wired about his contributions to the Rihanna-Lupita project, “If this does well, it will be another point for people who argue for black leads and black talent.”
It’s unlikely that Twitter users who participate in such hashtag-driven initiatives do so with any kind of expectation for compensation. You throw out suggestions for biopics about notable women in history or a killer casting idea for Tracee Ellis Ross simply because you think those are things that should already be movies. You might not realize, though, you are volunteering the kind of story pitch many screenwriters regularly work very hard to be able to make to producers. Or that some joke you make on Tumblr can actually end up becoming a movie three years later.
So, is this truly some untapped resource? Should the studios be focusing less on focus groups on the back end and more on the volunteer focus groups via Twitter on the front end? If enough people on social media are arguing for some casting or movie choice shouldn’t you listen to them to increase audience engagement? Or do social media-driven creative endeavors usually end up looking more like Snakes on a Plane?
As Lisa Davis, a partner in the entertainment group at Frankfurt Kurnit, told Wired, “It is in the interest of the entertainment industry to build goodwill with social media users so studios can continue to take advantage of great ideas with built-in buzz and fans, and social media users have an interest in seeing movie ideas that they are excited about become reality.”
As for compensation, though, well would you settle for a pat on the back and hardy “job well done”?