I actually have my production budget in the bank (thank God!), but now I am facing a mess with SAG, I don’t have any actor agreements done except for about 5 or 6 supporting roles, and my writer is holding out for a bo bonus(?). Basically, I have my budget, crew, and locations prepped, but legal is a nightmare and I don’t want to spend a fortune. Help!
Answer by Brandon Blake, Entertainment Lawyer:
Thanks for a great question. Pre-production planning is the key, and just as you plan your budgets, locations, and cast and crew calls, you need to plan your legal too. Of course, hiring our entertainment law firm with seventeen years of experience in production legal is important, but a lot of what I do when I start work with a client is to plan the legal side of a production. Some of that you can do yourself, so I will share some tips and tricks to help your legal budget stretch to the maximum. Please also see my Entertainment Lawyer Question and Answer Forum at www.filmtvlaw.com, for more in depth and money saving advice that I publish twice a month.
First off, it is important to prioritize the legal work for the film. I am including all kinds of “paperwork” as legal, because things like becoming a Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild signatory are paperwork issues that have a big impact on the legal side of a production. Of course, all kinds of contracts and negotiations fall into legal, even if a lawyer does not actually prepare them. Finally, copyright, title search, trademark, and insurance fall into the legal category.
Often when a client gets started with our firm on pre-production legal, the producer comes in and dumps a huge pile of paperwork on us and says “help”! That is fine, and we provide full service production legal, but with a little organization a producer can cut through many of these issues with limited guidance from an attorney.
Legal That Doesn’t Require a Lawyer
There are some elements of a production’s legal work that does not necessarily have to be done by a lawyer. There are two big examples that I can provide that can save a ton of legal time, letting our firm focus on the heavy lifting.
Below-the-line agreements are the first category of contracts where we usually pick and choose certain items that are important, and prefer to leave the rest to the unit production manager. That is why it is so important to have a great UPM, because when it comes to preparing agreements for grips and assistant camera people, a producer probably does not need our level of expertise.
While “below-the-line” can incorporate most of the on-set crew, there are certain crew members that I feel it is imperative to have our firm handle. Included in those crew are the director of photography, the editors, and the casting director. From years of experience I know that it is super important to get these right, and these positions are actually key creative positions that will make or break a film when you get into post-production. So, do not treat these key crew positions like the lighting and sound agreements!
II. Supporting Cast
Supporting cast agreements can usually also be left to non-lawyers. Depending on the film, you might have 50 or more of these agreements, and if you are smart and disciplined, each agreement should be the same form. Here is where an experienced casting director can make your life a lot easier.
In other articles I have mentioned that you should not hire a casting director too early in the development process. But here I will add, don’t let your casting director go too soon either! The job of the casting director does not have to end when the last casting call is finished. Negotiate from the start with your casting director to make this critical piece of production legal a team effort.
Why? It is not just about time savings. When a casting director negotiates a three-sentence deal letter with an agent and then walks out the door, you have just created a massive “who said what” negotiation for the entertainment lawyer. When the casting director is still part of the production, he or she can easily clarify what exact deal was agreed to, and there is no question about what the rates and perks should be.
This is also why I ask producers to get my firm engaged as soon as possible for pre-production. If I can spend 30 minutes talking to the casting director, I can save 20 hours of negotiations down the line. It is just that simple.
Paperwork That Does Require a Lawyer
So, as I described above, there are times when legal work does not have to be done by an entertainment lawyer. On the other hand, there is some paperwork that often is not considered legal that a producer really should have done by an attorney.
I. The Guilds
Often producers feel a (false) sense of confidence when dealing with the Screen Actors Guild and to a lesser extent the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild. Especially with SAG, producers tend to find the process easy at first and hard later.
Many producers do not realize they are making major decisions for the film or television series that will impact future profits, distribution avenues, and even investor recoup, with that very first SAG signature. A producer needs legal representation to deal effectively with SAG and to determine the best possible agreement. This is more than a check the box choice. The initial set up of the paperwork will determine overtime rates, work rules, PH&W contributions, residuals, and many issues that affect future profitability of the film or series.
Every producer knows our law firm will best handle writer agreements and producer deals. Very few producers would want to hire a director without legal guidance. But the most important above-the-line negotiations will be with the lead cast.
Once again, keep your eye on profit and the ability to distribute. Nothing impacts the bottom line like the deals made with star cast. And once again, this is an easy in, hard out situation. Agents at all the big talent agencies, and I have lots of friends at agencies, so no disrespect here, but the agent’s job is to make the initial deal easy, and then extract every dime and perk on behalf of the client after the deal letter is signed. So once again, teamwork between our law firm and the casting director saves eons of negotiation time, and a little early prevention saves a lot of legal cure later.
III E&O, General Liability Insurance, Payroll, Title and Copyright Search
Here are a bunch of miscellaneous departments that I also roll into legal, because they all involve paperwork. Each of these is a separate service provider, and again, you can save a lot of money and headaches by getting a little well-timed advice before signing up for each of these. I can also provide referrals that can save a lot of money, which I do as a part of my legal representation of a project.
Yes, distribution is not part of pre-production. But why wait until after the film or television series is shot to decide where to sell it? Studios and major production companies don’t do that. They make distribution part of the pre-production planning.
Imagine if you have a buyer ready and waiting for your project, before you even set up on your first location! That isn’t just convenient, it can make or break your investors’ recoup. Again, I am happy to help clients plan for successful distribution, during the pre-production phase.
As with any entertainment matter, please do not make a decision about complex issues without consulting an experienced entertainment lawyer first. Feel free to contact my office at www.filmtvlaw.com about a quote.
- By Brandon Blake, Entertainment Lawyer