Selling Selena’s Story <i> Their </i> Way

<i> Scott Collins is a regular contributor to Calendar</i>

As a tejano music star, Selena was surrounded by her family. Her brother played in the band and wrote and produced many of her songs; her father managed the group and its Texas recording studio.

Now, eight months after she was gunned down in a Corpus Christi hotel, the singer’s family members are trying to keep her memory alive--on their own terms. They have authorized a movie biography to be written and directed by Gregory Nava (“El Norte,” “Mi Familia”). Production is tentatively scheduled to begin next February, with a planned late-summer release.

But the as-yet-unwritten screenplay must first pass muster with Abraham Quintanilla Jr., Selena’s father, who has expressed a strong desire to make “a positive movie.” He and the producers, Los Angeles-based Esparza/Katz Productions, have already noted that the film won’t depict the March 31 shooting that made Selena a household name throughout the United States.


“I want to make sure this is not a Hollywood-dramatized movie but a true story,” said Quintanilla, 56. He will serve as executive producer but declined to say whether he would invest in the $10-million-plus film. “We don’t want to dwell on her tragedy,” he said.

But Quintanilla and the produc ers have already had their first brush with litigation. Ramiro Burr, a San Antonio music critic and writer, this fall filed a lawsuit claiming that the film producers persuaded Quintanilla to breach an agreement authorizing Burr to ghostwrite Selena’s story as told by her father. Burr claimed that his book was supposed to be the basis of any Selena movie.

The producers said Burr’s suit was groundless. The journalist later dropped the suit because he was concerned that the litigation would create the appearance of a conflict of interest in his coverage of music, according to his attorney.

Nevertheless, the Selena deal highlights the delicate legal and artistic relationship that often exists between stars (or their survivors) and those who would make films about their lives.

Filmmakers invariably strive to make the best or most commercial biographical picture, but the star’s family members--and non-relatives--often assert their rights over the material.

Producer Moctesuma Esparza said that, unlike most makers of movie biographies, he did not seek rights to Selena’s life story. Instead, the filmmakers entered into an unusual formal agreement that gave the family script approval while allowing Esparza control over the production itself.


“I have never gone after headline stories,” said Esparza, whose previous credits include “Gettysburg” and “The Milagro Beanfield War.” He added that he approached Selena’s family only after his daughter persuaded him that the singer’s story might have dramatic appeal. “Without [Selena’s] family, I won’t make the movie,” he said.

T hings do not always go so smoothly. According to Jody Zucker, a former attorney for ABC, filmmakers may not need to purchase “life story” rights if the subject is a public figure such as a film or music star. But in the absence of such rights, litigation has sometimes resulted.

Last year, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge rejected Elizabeth Taylor’s attempt to prevent NBC from making a miniseries based on publicly known facts of her life and an unauthorized biography by C. David Heymann. Taylor’s lawyer argued that the film would invade the actress’s privacy, but the court said blocking the telecast would have violated the network’s free-speech rights.

Writer-director Alan Hauge spent years negotiating for the rights to an authorized film biography of James Dean. The actor’s family finally approved Hauge’s script after spurning up to 60 previous overtures from other filmmakers. The film is scheduled to go into production this year. Two unauthorized film versions of Dean’s life also are in the works.

Stars or their survivors have a special edge if filmmakers need their help to conduct research or secure permission to use songs or other copyrighted material, legal experts say.

Family members have personal leverage as well. While defamation law does not protect the deceased, a filmmaker could run the risk of defaming “living relations, family and friends,” said Louise Nemschoff, an entertainment attorney. This makes their prior consent highly desirable, if not vital.

Meanwhile, Selena’s family is struggling to gain control over the posthumous explosion of interest in the singer’s life and music.

“There’s a phenomenal thing going on,” said author Victor Villasenor, who was authorized by Quintanilla to write another book, based on stories from Selena’s childhood. “There are bootleg T-shirts, cassettes, watches. . . . The family had to be careful over who they selected for the movie.”

Some or all of these factors may be at play in the close collabo ration between the filmmakers and the family of Selena, who was on the verge of mainstream success when she was shot to death at the age of 23. Her posthumously released album, “Dreaming of You,” entered the charts at No. 1 this summer. (The former president of her fan club has been sentenced to life in prison for the slaying.)

According to Quintanilla, Selena’s estate shares the rights to her recordings with her record company, Capitol EMI. Most of her songs were written and arranged by her brother and bass player, A. B. Quintanilla, who will work on the film’s soundtrack, according to the elder Quintanilla.

Nava has spent recent days interviewing the singer’s parents, siblings and cousins before starting work on the screenplay, Quintanilla said. The director did not respond to an interview request delivered through his agent.

While several industry sources said it is rare to yield script approval to a family, Esparza said that he had “no problem” giving such a right to Quintanilla. Both men agreed that the family chose Esparza over about 10 other prospective producers because he persuaded them that he wanted to make a film about Selena’s life, not her death.

“[Quintanilla] has the right to tell us he doesn’t like something and wants corrections,” Esparza said. “Our contact with the family has been just really very positive. They have not put any limits on what we’ve been able to pursue.”

Esparza said the film will focus on “strong Latino [family] ties” and Selena’s pursuit of her singing dream despite her parents’ initial misgivings. While there is currently no distributor, the producer said a number of companies “have expressed a deep desire to acquire this project.”

For Quintanilla, the movie offers a chance to deliver the message of her music to a wider audience.

“Selena’s death touched many people,” he said. “She struggled to achieve the American dream. . . . [She] was an artist who connected with the masses and cared for people. Today we live in a world where those qualities are very distant or remote.”*