As the manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev unwound last Friday, one of the most common anxious jokes I heard was that when it was all over over, Ben Affleck, who grew up in the Boston area and made his bones with movies like Good Will Hunting, Gone Baby Gone, and The Town was going to walk away with an armload of Academy Awards for whatever movie he inevitably makes about the Boston Marathon bombing—and bombers. Over at the Hollywood Reporter, Eriq Gardner explain that it’s possible that Tsarnaev, who is recovering from serious injuries and has been indicted on charges of weapons of mass destruction use and malicious damage of property resulting in death, could try to hire an entertainment lawyer to negotiate the sale of his life rights, or to block a movie about him altogether:
Massachusetts is among many states these days that has a “right of publicity” law. This statute prevents unauthorized commercial use of an individual’s “name, portrait or picture.” Further, the law is described as similar to one enacted in New York, which is important because in a rather unprecedented move a few weeks ago, a New York judge temporarily blocked Lifetime Television from airing a movie about convicted killer Chris Porco after the subject sued. But the judge’s restraining order was stayed after Lifetime cried about the potential disaster to free speech.
For that reason, it’s almost guaranteed — although not totally because Massachusetts has no appellate case law on the topic — that Tsarnaev wouldn’t be able to stop any production company from making a movie about his life.
He makes clear that it would be hard for Tsarnaev to block a project entirely, or to guarantee that he got paid: courts have tended to side with filmmakers on free speech grounds, though some criminals and accused criminals have won the right to some compensation from projects that retell their stories. But the entire scenario raises uncomfortable questions about what it takes to lock down the rights to a good story in Hollywood. Would someone decide it’s worth it, even if it meant paying someone who is accused of killing and maiming dozens of people? And would they pay up if the money had to go to a compensation fund rather than to Tsarnaev himself, an arrangement that would be the equivalent of paying bombing survivors for their injuries, especially given the steep medical costs many of them are facing, and the fact that donations may not be enough to cover all of their needs? I hate the idea of seeing Tsarnaev get paid for the harm he’s caused the Boston area over the past two weeks. But as a moral exercise, I’m grimly curious what kind of price Hollywood would put on his story.