The main character in my comedy script is loosely based on a famous actor. From the character's description, mannerisms and dialogue, it is very easy to conclude whom he is based on. This parody, however, is fictionalized enough to avoid a lawsuit.
It’s roughly akin to the Tim Allen character in “Galaxy Quest.” It’s pretty obvious that character is supposed to evoke William Shatner.
Some fellow writers insist that my hero should not be written as a fictional character, but as the real person. They claim this could be a way to attract that actor to play himself. If that fails, the studio could hire an impersonator as in “Saturday Night Live” sketches, as long as the real actor signs off on it. They argue any or all of this could be changed later on if need be.
I say this is a recipe for disaster.
As you’ve acknowledged, some overworked script readers look for any excuse to toss a script in the trash. Getting actors to play themselves can be very hard. Yes, "Being John Malkovich" got made but I believe that to be the exception and not the rule.
As far as getting an impersonator goes, no studio would want to take on this big of a legal headache. SNL makes seven-minute sketches with broad caricature-like parodies when using a real person’s name. I believe the consequences of this course of action would be much different if the character is the protagonist in a motion picture.
So, my question is, who’s right?
A long question with a very short answer - you are, largely for the reasons you cite. If your script is coming into the company at a low level, say, in response to a query, you're really hurting yourself if the lead character is a famous actor playing themselves.
You want the longer version? If I'm reading "Being Jennifer Aniston," my first thought is going to be, "Is Jennifer Aniston attached to this?" If she's not, then it's a waste of my time to write up the script. Your friends might argue that, "Well, it could just as easily be rewritten to be "Being Katie Holmes," but that's also a problem. If you've done your job, the writing will be so specific to Jennifer Aniston that you can't just pop her out and put Katie Holmes in. Every gag and every major scene would need adjustment.
And if the script is written in a way that DOESN'T force this sort of rewrite, then one has to wonder why Jennifer Aniston is written so generically.
Pro-writers will get the benefit of the doubt on this, by the way. Though the sitcom DON'T TRUST THE B---- IN APT 23 currently features James Van Der Beek as himself, the original draft of the pilot was written for Lance Bass. Of course in that case, JVDB is more of a supporting character than the guy driving the show and the creator and producers were established Hollywood players who got the benefit of the doubt.
Also, is it okay to invoke the name of the person being parodied when writing the fictional character? Could the writer of “Galaxy Quest” describe the hero in the screenplay as a “William Shatner-type?”
Yeah, that's a fair move. There are a couple schools of thought on this, though. Some writers and readers hate this because they consider the shorthand to be a form of cheating. I can see that side of it. If the character evokes William Shatner, than his actions and attitudes should speak louder than that description. Remember, the audience needs to figure out who this guy is from what he says and does - not how the script sums him up in an aside.
I usually avoid that sort of thing when I write, by the way. I'd also suggest that if you do it, not to use that kind of description more than once.