The Art & Business of Contracts
Know your laws
Foreword: for the purpose of this – and any of my following articles, filmmakers shall be understood as what the French legal system considers as being the “authors of the film”: screenwriters and dialogue writers, directors, composers and adaptors.
Indie filmmakers know one law: Murphy’s. Aspiring filmmakers will learn it soon enough. Nevertheless, there are many other laws applying to filmmaking, such as entertainment law, intellectual property law (or IP law), contract law, property law, etc.
Most – if not all – indie filmmakers tend to willfully ignore the law. Not that they will necessarily break it, more that they just don’t want to have to deal with it, regarding it as a burden. Why? Until things go awry, you are not supposed to need law – plus art can’t be imprisoned in such a rigid structure, right? Wrong! See Murphy’s law.
You think your co-screenwriter is your best friend? You are convinced the actors are fine with that nude scene? Wait until money, jealousy, and what not, invite themselves to the party.
Let’s say you are the screenwriter. You write a screenplay – it takes time, sweat and blood. You trust the director, so you don’t sign a contract. (I observed that most of the time asking for a contract in the indie filmmaking world is seen as a mark of distrust and frowned upon… until the movie is wrapped up. Then contracts are NEEDED to sell the movie). As there is no money in the production as of now, you hand in your work for free. But then, other people won’t work for free (actors, technicians, etc.) and they get paid. You don’t. How does that feel? Unfair right? There’s nothing you can do however: you already spent too much time on the movie – if nothing else you want to see that the movie gets made. The producer/director knows as much. At the end of the day you worked endless hours to get a mere IMDb credit. Hooray. Let me tell you, your IMDb page may feed your ego; it won’t feed your stomach though.
Seeking professional help (i.e. lawyer) is therefore highly recommended. Yet, many indie filmmakers hardly have enough money to actually make that movie, let alone pay legal fees. So what to do now?
The artist’s point of view
For lack of anything better, sign a letter of agreement before handing over any work – I have made the mistake of not doing this multiple times, don’t. It is a (short) document through which the parties agree to the terms and conditions under which they will work together. For something as complex as a piece of art – especially of the movie kind – it will be insufficient, but it is a beginning and it might come in handy if you get cornered.
Here are some of the provisions you might want to discuss and include in said document:
- What do you get paid for? (an outline, a screenplay, a making of, a score, etc.)
- How much do you get paid?
- When? (this does not have to be a precise date – it could be a step of the production)
- Credit line (it does seem obvious, but make sure you get proper credit for your work – you’re likely not to get rich being an indie filmmaker, the last thing you want is to get dispossessed of your work).
The producer’s point of view
(For argument’s sake, the producer here will be anyone in charge of the movie’s finances – for the indie filmmaking crowd, it will more often than not be the director.)
To sell your movie to anyone legit, you will need contracts with your fellow filmmakers (and preferably with your actors too). Anyone buying the right to release a movie would ask for a copy of these even though they will also make you sign a waiver.
Wait. What? A waiver?
A waiver (or “Hold Harmless clause” or “Indemnity”) is a little provision through which the producer (you) warrants he owns all of the rights to the movie he is selling and holds harmless the buyer. In other words, if any of your talent feels cheated (or has cheated you), you’ll be the one who gets sued and asked for money. You will most likely find the waiver in the contract through which you sell the release/distribution rights of your movie.
Hence the importance of signing contracts with your talent and fellow filmmakers BEFORE the shit hits the fan.
Note: this article is not legally binding and merely expresses the point of view of the editor. It is your responsibility as a filmmaker to make sure you comply with the law and sign the proper documents.
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