This story first appeared in the March 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
While HBO's The Jinx could end up putting a guilty man in prison, Hollywood is seeking movies about the opposite: freeing the unjustly incarcerated.
After the Serial podcast became a cultural phenomenon in fall 2014 and led to a new appeal for its subject, Adnan Syed, the new year has brought a surge of film deals for legal thrillers about the possibly innocent.
"The premise of someone wrongly convicted has two crucial cinematic tools automatically baked in: conflict and mystery," says Couper Samuelson, president of feature films at Blumhouse, which recently optioned Errol Morris' A Wilderness of Error. The book examines the evidence against Jeffrey MacDonald, who was convicted in 1979 of murdering his pregnant wife and two daughters but maintains they were killed by drug-crazed hippies. Blumhouse, which executive produced Jinx, is backing the project with Moneyball producer Rachael Horovitz.
A Serial-inspired spec script titled Undone recently sparked strong interest from several bidders and was scooped up by Parkes+MacDonald and Black Bear Pictures. Written by first-time scribe Melissa London Hilfers after Serial became a breakout hit, Undone centers on a podcast that brings attention to an old murder case, allowing an attorney to fight to have the convicted man released after decades in prison. "The script spoke to what's going on in the zeitgeist today," says Paradigm agent David Boxerbaum, who reps Hilfers. "The court system has become so transparent because of the news media, so everyone gets to play judge and jury."
The subject of the wrongly imprisoned has become so hot that there are two movies being developed around one infamous Detroit man's story. Universal was first out of the gate, optioning an Atavist article about Richard Wershe, aka "White Boy Rick," and attaching Oblivion's Joseph Kosinski to direct. The article explores how, during the mid-1980s, government officials allegedly encouraged a then-teenaged Wershe to become a drug dealer and their criminal informant before convicting him — on what some call questionable evidence and witnesses — of cocaine possession and giving him a life sentence. In February, Studio 8 bought a spec script by Logan and Noah Miller inspired by White Boy Rick's story, with John Lesher's LBI Entertainment producing. And a source reveals there potentially is a third production company interested in making a White Boy Rick story.
In addition, in February, Sony signed to develop a feature about Doreen Giuliano, a mother who has fought for more than a decade to have her son's murder conviction overturned, going so far as to go undercover to expose the nefarious ways the case was handled. Giuliano's son, John Giuca, was convicted for the 2003 murder of Mark Fisher and sentenced to 25 years to life. Traffic's Marshall Herskovitz will write the script, Ed Zwick is attached to direct, and the two will produce via their Bedford Falls Co.
Meanwhile, as Jinx's subject, Robert Durst, was fictionalized in 2010's All Good Things, Serial's story of Syed's plight also might end up in theaters: UTA is shopping film rights to producers and studios.