Why does a Filmmaker need a Lawyer?

First, let me clarify that when I use the term “filmmaker” in this blog, I mean a person who creates an audiovisual work, whether the medium is film, video, or an electronic format. My remarks are also directed to screenwriters, whom I think of as “filmmakers” in the broadest sense.

Filmmakers need lawyers to advise them on their rights, protect those rights, and make sure those rights are accurately documented.

One of the saddest things I see in my practice is a filmmaker with a completed project who can’t sell it because the legal documentation isn’t correct. Why is this sad? Because it’s completely preventable.

Let me share with you one of the most important principles of professional film making: It doesn’t matter how good your movie is, if your legal work isn’t right, you don’t have a film to sell.

Why? Because, truth be told, distributors, licensees and other potential purchasers aren’t really buying images on a screen. What they are really paying for is the assurance they have the right to use what they’re getting and won’t be arrested (or sued) if they sell tickets or DVDs of your movie to others.

NOTE: if you’re making a home movie you plan to never show to the public, legal documentation is far less important.

A Few Words About Contracts

You are probably able to negotiate your own deals, and should if you can. That way, you know exactly what you’re giving and getting. But you want to be sure the deal you agreed to is the deal that is written down.

If you break it down into it’s simplest form, every good contract really just says:

“This is my position in relation to you, and here is your position in relation to me. I’ll do this for you and you’ll do that for me, and if we don’t do what we say, this is what will happen.”

Although that may be easy to describe for the people involved, the trick is in writing the contract so that it will be unmistakably understood the same way by a third party who didn’t hear the original discussions.

That’s where your lawyer comes in. Lawyers are experts at writing in the language of the law and the industry in which they work. (So, you definitely want someone who is experienced in the language and culture of the motion picture industry to draft your contracts.) They know the standard ways of phrasing particular deal points so that a judge or jury can clearly understand what you meant.

You might have a book of form contracts you got at your local bookstore. But those “standard forms” (there really is no such thing) can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Each contract is unique to the transaction it describes, and needs to be customized for that transaction. When you’re looking at forms from a book, or a form someone has given you, remember that those forms were not meant for your deal; they were meant for some other transaction.

Value of a Good Negotiator

For some points, particularly drafting points (the “fine print” of a contract), it may be less emotional or less embarrassing to have someone else do the talking for you. An experienced entertainment attorney can negotiate on your behalf, and in the process may pare down your costs or enhance your profit considerably.

Successful business people understand this and will gladly pay their attorneys large retainers to prevent problems.

Unfortunately, too many filmmakers don’t realize they’re in business. Or that being a good business person doesn’t detract from their value as artists. The ones who refuse to think like business people don’t last very long in the tough, competitive motion picture business.

© Keith E. Cooper. All rights reserved. You may freely link to this post, but please do not copy (in whole or in part) without permission of the copyright owner.

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3 Responses to “Why does a Filmmaker need a Lawyer?”

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