Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Contracts and Low Budget Moviemaking

Submitted by by Peter John Ross

Have you ever heard of success stories like Kevin Smith making Clerks, Edward Burns directing The Brothers McMullen, or Spike Lee shooting She's Gotta Have It? Well, what if they forgot to cross every “T” or dot every “I?” We might not have ever heard of them. It would have been very easy for an actor or the owner of a convenience store to screw them over if the filmmakers had not gotten signed contracts. If you do not have a signed release form for the actor, or a signed location agreement with the property owner, they might become the owner of your film, or at least ruin any chance you have of publicly playing your movie. By getting certain blanket legalities in order, you can maintain control and ownership of your movie. A lot of independent filmmakers forget the business half of the movie business. Contracts are a very serious aspect of making movies. All too often it's enticing to go out and shoot your movie with a camcorder and then put it out there.

Even putting your movie on your own personal website is considered a public performance and if you don't have written permission to use the likeness or performance of your actors they can change their minds and legally there is no recourse. Interestingly enough there were some producers in Texas who worked with an up and coming local actress, actually had contracts, and even used the SAG Experimental contract which everyone thinks is a safety net. There's one problem with that. There’s a big loophole for people that are actually SAG members. If you use the SAG Experimental contract and then land a video distribution deal, any SAG actors have the right to veto the sale. This particular young actress made it big in movies like Jerry Maguire, and then these really bad movies made several years earlier became valuable, and the producers lost the sale because she exercised this little loophole. Even if you do a non-union digital video short with your friends, GET THEM TO SIGN RELEASE FORMS. This allows you to send it and screen it at film festivals, and if you should be so lucky to get the movie broadcast on television or distributed in any way, you are protected. You never know if this actor might become famous ten years from now, and if you don’t have a signed release form, you can’t sell your movie with them in it.

Locations work differently. Each state, and even each city, will have different laws and complications. Private property needs signed location agreements pretty much without fail. I know in Ohio you do not need any permits to shoot on public property, but then certain cities and towns have made their own laws concerning that, so it's not one-hundred percent statewide. In California you almost ALWAYS need a permit to shoot anywhere. Building exteriors work a bit differently. Usually a building that is large, public, and unable to be obscured is fair game, but if there is a trademarked logo of a company visible, you enter into a different arena of legalities. Trademarks are similar to copyright laws, but these protect the image of the company much more so, and lean heavily toward the corporations.

Again, if you shoot at your friend's parent’s house, but you don't get written permission, and later they felt the use of their house in the finished movie portrays their neighborhood poorly, they can stop your movie from being released. However, they can't say much if you can present a signed location agreement where they gave you legal permission to use their house in your movie.

On the flip side of things, when working with friends, read the contracts carefully among yourselves. I have personally been screwed over by people that, at the time, I would never have believed would make things difficult. Now I have lost all the rights to two of my movies that I wrote, directed, produced, and edited. Whenever I put them on a short film site, shortly thereafter, a cease and desist order comes to the site from my former partners. No real reason, they just want to be annoying. Similarly, I know a filmmaker who had an idea for a movie and went to his friend and asked for help to turn his idea into a movie. Now he is legally entangled over who owns the character from the movie. In this case, the filmmaker did not get contracts signed beforehand, and never knew that his friend was going to screw him over until he presented the contracts after the movies were screened at film festivals and had some early buzz. Now he can't have any screenings without getting letters to his attorney about “alleged monies lost” for their client. We aren't Kevin McClory fighting over rights to Thunderball and James Bond, we're a bunch of morons who made some digital video shorts with a camcorder in four hours.

If your movie gets selected to play on television in Canada on the “Moviola Channel for Shorts,” or the Sky Network's “Short Film Channel” in the United Kingdom, or the “Sundance Channel” or “IFC” in the United States, they will be unable to play your movie without signed contracts. There's this thing big budget movies have listed called “Errors and Omissions” that deal with this kind of thing. Since most filmmakers are on the low end of the financial scale, simple contracts for locations and actors can be found for free online. Use them. Always.

Protect yourself and get it all in writing, that way if your movie is a success, you can grab on and enjoy the ride. Otherwise you may become one of the “almost got famous, but I forgot to get the contracts signed.”

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