This letter confirms the basic terms of the agreement (“Agreement”) between Paragon Pictures (“Producer” and you (parent of the “Author”) with regard to certain rights in and to the deceased’s life story including without limitation, as depicted in the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram timelines written by the author and first published [in the United Kingdom] by ” ______________ (“Publisher”), copyright ___________ (the ” Property”). The terms of the Agreement are as follows:
“Are you ready to go?”
Nicola was applying her make-up to her face in a calm but slipshod fashion. Concealer. Foundation. Mascara. Eye liner. The application of make-up had once, in her youth, been a mature and pleasurable process that she relished. It had made her feel advanced, sophisticated and adult–like. Now, it had succumbed toa frivolous and colourless routine.
It was a bitter, frozen late December evening. Outside, she could hear the soft scraping of deciduous leaves blustering along the pavement, propelled by a harsh Siberian wind. This was interrupted suddenly by the uninviting drone of a portable electric razor. Paul was shaving in the bathroom. The jarring murmur of the razor was audible as he loudly sheared facial hair from his chin. That electric razor had been a last-minute Christmas present from Jocelyn.
“What time is it?” Paul shouted from the bathroom.
Nicola glanced impassively at the digital clock on the bedside table. “Quarter to” she said. “The car will be here in fifteen minutes.”
Nicola took another sip of expensive Australian Chardonnay. It’s soft, velvet taste sending instant swells of welcome numbness and detachment coursing through her bloodstream. Her phone vibrated with an alert. She unlocked the display. Paul had tagged her in a Facebook status:
Getting dressed up for the premiere.Nicola and I are so proud of our beautiful daughter and all that she achieved! Thankful for everyone who has been cheering us on. Thank u from the bottom of our hearts.
She put her phone down and glanced in the mirror, self-appraising her chosen evening dress. It was a Navy Chi Chi Saska dress. An embroidered evening cocktail dress made from Polyamide.
It all had been paid for, of course, as had Paul’s Monaco Gucci seersucker-silk suit with butterfly lining and padded shoulders, ashad the BMW3 Series that was transporting them to the auditorium this evening. Everything had been taken care of.
“What?” was the incredulous response one September evening.
“Paragon Pictures would like to meet you”
“What on earth for?”
Hampton Foy, their overpriced solicitor of London-based law firm Hagan Edwards LLP had telephoned to inform them the news that an American film studio wanted a sit-down with them.
“It’s confidential, Nikki. I’d rather not say over the phone. They didn’t want me to disclose any details yet.”
“Who is it?” Paul interrupted from the living room, his attention consumed by the television set.
“It’s Hampton” Nicola said. “He said that a big American film company wants to meet us”
“Why the hell for?” responded Paul.
The meeting itself took place at the Paragon Pictures offices in London near Russell Square, adjacent to the London School of Economics. Paul and Nicola travelled by cab and met Hampton outside the front entrance. An attractive young secretary had shown them through into a waiting area and provided them with lavish Honduran coffee and luxury English biscuits while they waited.
“What is this about?” Paul asked Hampton. “I’m sure we’ll get more details once we sit down with them” he replied.
“This just all seems a bit odd” said Nicola, sipping her second cappuccino. Hampton put a hand on hers. “It’s nothing to be worried about. I promise you”
After waiting for around fifteen or twenty minutes, the secretary returned and escorted them through the chic contemporary offices to an empty conference room with a pear-shaped oak table with smooth, curved edges in the center. They all took a seat on one side, as instructed by the secretary.
“They’ll be with you in just a sec” said the secretary, before excusing herself.Nicola observed the multi-purpose meeting room, admiring its slick, impressive and authoritative design.
After a few minutes, the Paragon Pictures people finally arrived. There were five of them altogether; three development executives and two lawyers. The leading executive, a short, stony-faced American man of Pakistani origin, offered his hand welcomingly.
“So sorry we kept you. Riz Shahid” he said in a courteous and genteel trans-Atlantic accent. They all shook hands and took a seat. The Berlin leather-faced executive office chairs squeaked in unison as people adjusted themselves into comfortable seating positions.
“I’m sure you’re both wondering what all this tomfoolery is all about” offered Karen McQuewick, Riz’s subordinate.Nicola studied her casually. She had the air of someone who had cut her teeth in London’s dog-eat-dog corporate consultancy world. Someone who had fought bureaucratic sexism from male colleagues at every promotional opportunity yet had triumphed through a combination of wrought iron persistence and fire-bred tenacity.
“Yes, just a bit” replied Paul, tenderly holding Nicola’s hand.
“Well, we’ll cut to the chase” said Riz. “There’s a reason we’ve asked you both to come here today.”
He left a portentous pause like the most gifted of orators do, reveling in the spotlight of unabashed attention.
“We would like to option the film rights to all of Jocelyn’s social media timeline.”
Nicola glanced at Paul, then at Hampton. Paul reacted with a muted curiosity. He leaned forward, as if intimating his interest.
“We’d like to purchase the option on Jocelyn’s social media history. Her Facebook, her Twitter and her Instagram timelines. All of her posts, all of her photos, her videos. Anything she’s ever said or liked. Everything.”
“Why?” asked Nicola.
“We’ve developed an algorithm” began Karen “that can read a person’s social media history and place a value on all of the plot points, everything from romantic scenes to turbulent life events to sad heartbreaks. And the algorithm scores according to a directory, in the way a teacher might score a test. Those scores are fed into the computer algorithm, which then calculates against existing critical and box office data to determine which person’s life story has the strongest likelihood of becoming a successful movie with 65% to 70% accuracy. The computer determined that Jocelyn’s life would make for a wonderful film. It’s a very powerful story and it has all the hallmarks that make for great cinema.”
“We’ve pioneered a ground-breaking new technology” interrupted Riz “that allows us to take all of a person’s social media presence and adapt into a feature film. We selected Jocelyn as the first person whose life we’d like to turn into a feature film”
“This is unprecedented. It’s never happened before. We’d be making history at this table right now” added Karen.
Paul, Nicola and Hampton consulted one another silently. Hampton decided to make the first move.
“Hold on. How would it work? Would there be an actor playing her?” asked Hampton.
“No. This technology creates a digital onscreen depiction of Jocelyn’s life using every single bit of her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram data. It converts all of her social media posts, chat, blogs, photos, videos and likes into a narrative feature film. Simply put, Jocelyn will be the digital star of her own feature film.”
Paul and Nicola glanced at one another, dubious.
“Sorry. But this sounds like some sort of marketing hoax or publicity stunt” ventured Paul.
“I can assure you Mr. Ness, it’s not” retorted Karen, sipping a glass of carbonated mineral water.
“Why do you need her life rights?” asked Nicola “Her Facebook profile is in the public domain. What’s stopping you from going ahead without our consent?”
“An excellent question” responded Riz. “Karen, would you like to answer?”
Karen put her hands together diplomatically, like a university professor on the first day of term.
“Simply put” she said, “There are a number of risks facing studios that portray individuals in their films, the main one being the risk of being sued for defamation. Whilst there is no concise definition of what constitutes a ‘defamatory statement’ under the Defamation Act 1996, it’s essential from a legal perspective to avoid any potential defamation or invasion of privacy claims which may potentially be actionable under English law and may affect E&O insurance cover eligibility.”
“But with respect, Jocelyn is deceased” Hampton stated, avoiding eye contact with Paul and Nicola due to the sensitivity of his enquiry. “So what’s the issue? You can’t defame the dead”
One of the lawyers present, a young athletic man with a slight Glaswegian accent, leaned forward and spoke up. “That’s correct. However, there are some jurisdictions that are not so forgiving and do have ‘post mortem rights of publicity’ and so in the event of an international release, we’d like to mitigate this by ensuring there is absolutely no risk of litigation”
“So, what you’d be buying, in effect is the right for us not to sue you further down the road?” asked Paul forthrightly, cutting through the tiresome legal jargon.
Unperturbed, Riz smiled, well-accustomed to facing direct questions. “Yes, that’s correct. But this is standard practice in the industry, Mr. Ness. Mrs. Ness. There is nothing new about this type of agreement”
“What are you offering?” asked Hampton, dispensing with any polite formality or social foreplay.
Riz glanced at Karen who responded by opening her bible-black snakeskin Filofax and perusing the itemized batch of contracts within. She removed one and placed it on the table surface, pushing it nonchalantly in the direction of Hampton.
Hampton picked up the contract and scanned it quickly. Paul and Nicola watched him with indignant impatience. Hampton reached the bottom of the page, noticing the figure included on the dotted line.
“Is thisfigure correct?” he asked in disbelief.
“Yes” responded Karen. It was a response so unwavering in its over-confident simplicity.
Hampton revealed the figure to Paul and Nicola, the two of them leaning over to take a peak.
“Oh my God” said Nicola, astonished.
“And that’s before it even gets made” reinforced Karen.
“What happens if it gets made?” asked Hampton.
“Check the other side”
Hampton turned the page and saw the actual figure at the top of the page. He held it out for Paul and Nicola to see. They both gasped in astonishment.
“Jesus!” said Paul.
“We’re really excited about the prospect of proceeding with this project” said Riz “but please, take all the time you need to come to a decision. Nothing needs to be decided today.”
Nicola put on her white rhodium-plated pierced earrings in the mirror. On the TV in the background, the national news aired a morose and saturnine news report about Syrian refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. She turned it off.
Her phone vibrated again. Once again, she ignored it.
“You ready?” she called to her husband, still frolicking around in the bathroom.
“Nearly. Just need to find my bloody aftershave. Where the hell is it?”
Nicola ignored him. He always did this. Normally, it was car keys. The amount of times a set of lost car keys had caused them to be late to social engagements were innumerable. Nicola thought about that myriad of wasted time searching for car keys and postulated whether there was a parallel universe somewhere where that wasted time had been devoted to more profound and expedient pursuits like learning origami or yoga and meditation.
A car horn sounded outside.
“The car’s here.”
“I’m not going anywhere until I’ve found that fucking aftershave.”
“Just forget about it. We don’t have time!”
“Look, I’m not going to a film premiere smelling like a mixture of Cilit Bang and cheap bathroom diffuser blend!”
Nicola fetched her cream winter trench coat and woolen scarf and put them on. The car horn blared again.
“Paul. This is ridiculous. If you had sorted out your toiletries like I had asked weeks ago, you would know perfectly well where your aftershave was”
Paul emerged somewhat victoriously from the bathroom. “I’ve got it” he said with an air of smug yet ultimately undeserved satisfaction. He sprayed some aftershave on his neck. The aroma reached Nicola’s nostrils. It smelled like sweet nutmeg and ginger musk but with a bitter infusion of alcoholic aftertaste to give it an erudite and virile quality.
“Right. Let’s go.”
They hadn’t needed much time to think about it. The money being offered by Paragon Pictures was enough to ensure they didn’t need to worry about money for the rest of their lives. Paul was galvanized by the seemingly infinite possibilities that this good fortune afforded them.
“Travelling” he said. “You always wanted to go travelling. Now is our chance.”
And it was true. Before the trappings of 9 to 5 office jobs, standard variable-rate mortgages and suburban domesticity had anchored them, they had daydreamed about going interrailing in northern Europe, back packing through South-East Asia or working for a year on a dairy farm in the Australian Outback. Then, Jocelyn had come along and forced them to dump their romanticized plans firmly on the scrap heap.
But there was a feeling of sickness that had implanted itself in her from the moment her pen had touched the dotted line. From the moment her hand had inscribed swooping letters in Quink ink, her conscience had aggravated her, manifesting itself in chronic stomach cramps and panging migraines.
They were also required to sign non-disclosure agreements preventing them from discussing the movie until it was formerly announced. The production was incredibly top secret and Paragon Pictures were keen to ensure that no details were leaked to the press.
[The Recipient undertakes not to use the Confidential Information disclosed by the other party for any purpose except the Purpose, without first obtaining the written agreement of the other party]
Instead, they decided to invest the money for the future. They met and hired a financial adviser who worked for Morgan Stanley in Canary Wharf and who recommended that they put their new found windfall into a zero-balance account consisting of bonds, certificates of deposit, commercial paper and other highly liquid debt instruments. The financial adviser assured them that, if the bank failed, it wouldn’t hurt their investments because the underlying assets would be held in his or her name, not the name of the institution.
Meanwhile, development of the movie was fast-tracked to production. Paul and Nicola were asked by Paragon Pictures if they would be interested in seeing any early material or trailer footage, but the two of them routinely declined. They responded that they’d rather wait until the finished product was ready.
The passenger door to the BMW was opened by the driver and Nicola stepped out. She was instantly washed in flashing lights. There were swarms of TV news crews and cameras everywhere. Hordes of paparazzi were snapping photos behind a velvet rope, all fighting pugnaciously for a suitable snapshot.
“Nicola! Nicola! This way!”
Paul got out and walked around the car to accompany his wife. The paparazzi persisted in their cries.
“Nicola! Paul! This way!”
They were escorted to the red carpet. Above them, a towering billboard of Jocelyn’ssolemn and pallid face stared down at them. Nicola looked away, flustered. She recognized the picture. It had been digitally resurrected from a particular Facebook image that Jocelyn had uploaded some years ago. It used to be her favorite photograph of her daughter. Today, it was a towering monolith to her shame.
She turned and saw Riz and Karen approaching, both smartly dressed in lavish evening attire.
“So glad you could make it” said Riz. “We’re so excited for you to finally see it after all this time.” They all shook hands and politely exchanged kisses on cheeks.
“You both look wonderful” said Karen. Nicola speculated privately whether the reason that Karen had so rapidly ascended the career ladder was due solely to her keenly obsequious veneer and unparalleled ability to reap strategic adulation on her many dupes.
The four of them were escorted into the movie theatre. The theatre was crammed with eager and impassioned movie-goers. There was a strange sizzling atmosphere in the air, like an audience relishing being part of something new; anephemeral part of history. Nicola wondered whether this was what it would’ve been like to sit in a Parisian cafe during the premiere of L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, one of the first public exhibitions of motion pictures,in 1895.The legend went that when the film (a 50-second piece of black and white footage depicting the entry of a train pulled by a steam locomotive into a train station) was first shown the audience was so overwhelmed by the moving image of a life-sized train coming directly at them that people screamed and fled from the café in horror. Nicola gazed around the theatre and imagined these people today behaving in exactly the same way, tearing towards the doors in a display of mass panic and terror. Like weaver ants clamoring over each other in search of an escape route. It was a vision that gave her immense gratification.
Nicola and Paul took their seats in the third row. The frenzy of anticipation in the theatre gradually dissipated. Nicola felt the buzz of her phone through the leather of her handbag. She reached in and without glancing at the display, turned it off.
Finally, the lights dimmed and the movie began.
Money isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. When you have lots of money, you have lots of time. And when you have lots of time, you have lots of time to think. Thinking is rat poison for the guilty person.
Nicola tried to consume her days by writing a blog. She envisaged the possibility of publishing her blog entries in a few years. She regarded them as a tragic memoir of dealing with the death of a loved one and the terrible sin of profiting from that death. Everyday, she would retire to their Edwardian conservatory and write for two or three hours on her Apple Macbook Air. For the rest of the day, she would swan about, lying on the sofa watching brain cell eradicating daytime television and drinking cheap Chardonnay.
Paul, on the other hand, understood that a strict and rigorous daily routine was essential to personal wellbeing and health. He took up fencing lessons to distract himself from the morning monotony. He swam fifty laps every afternoon at the local swimming pool. Every evening, he jogged at the local park.
From that point on, their lifestyles took divergent paths; his into fitness and wellbeing, hers into drink and despair. Like two intertwined vapor trails in the sky, spiraling away from one another.
When the movie was over, there was thunderous applause reverberating all around the auditorium. People were climbing to their feet in a standing ovation. Nicole looked over. Paul had tears in his eyes. “What did you think?” he asked.
“Yeah” she said “It was great. She would’ve liked it.”
“She would’ve loved it” responded Paul. He stood up and shook Riz’s hand in warm gratitude. He gave Karen a congratulatory kiss on the cheek. Nicola watched her husband and regarded him the way a prison guard might regard the inmates locked within their precast concrete cells, feeling amodicum of sympathy for keeping them being sequestered from the rest of the world.
Paul closed the front door behind them.
“I’ll be up in a minute” he said removing his bow tie before retiring to the kitchen for a sly glass of Jim Bean. Nicola let her hair loose and drunkenly climbed the staircase. In the bedroom, the open bottle of white wine sat on the bedside table. Nicola picked it up and walked to the bathroom, locking the door behind her.
She closed the toilet lid and took a seat, swigging straight from the bottle of Chardonnay. Suddenly, an alert sounded from her phone. She removed it from her handbag and glanced at the screen. It was a Facebook alert in her newsfeed. She clicked on it and a video message popped up:
YOUR LIFE IN REVIEW
It was a randomly assorted montage of photographs, videos and posts from the preceding year. A contrived mosaic of lost memories, forgotten experiences and meaningful life events neatly inserted into a picture postcard social media algorithm to reinforce Nicola’s own sense of individual self-worth.
The last photograph was of her and Jocelyn, sitting side by side in an outdoor Lebanese restaurant in Rhodes, Greece. It was taken just two weeks before the suicide. The two of them were smiling into the lens. Now, it was just one of countless digital images in a vast, swirling and interconnected data stream of megabytes and pixels. It was a digital memorial to an ephemeral happiness, frozen in time.
Daley Nixon graduated from the University of Glamorgan in 2009 with BA Honours in Film & Video including Scriptwriting. Daley has written magazine articles, short stories, short films and feature screenplays, three of which have been optioned by film companies in the US and UK. Daley is currently developing a number of projects for theatre and film.
If you enjoyed Your Life In Review, leave a comment and let Daley know.
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