Just finished my first feature film and got it picked up for world DVD distribution. When it was sold to the UK the distributors released it with an incorrectly transferred music track causing it to sound like a jumping dirty CD throughout the entire movie. Many customers have complained about this and returned the disc. The UK distributor has warned me not to bring up the problem publicly and refused to fix it. Being a first time director what can I do? It's now affecting my second feature as my film's quality is now being called into question.
Answer by Brandon Blake, Entertainment Lawyer:
Great question. Having worked with feature film distributors for more than 16 years, representing filmmakers and working to get the best deal possible for both independent and studio projects, this is certainly not the first time I have heard of similar problems with distributors. Once the distribution agreement has been signed there is not much that can be done unless there is some provision in the contract that guarantees some level of performance from the distributor. In order to fully address this question, I will go through some ways to prevent this type of problem from occurring and then I will discuss some ideas for how to address it after the contract is signed.
Although it seems obvious, the easiest way to deal with a problem like this is to work with a reputable film distributor. Most distributors do not like returns any more than the filmmaker and will work to make sure that the sound and video quality are as good as possible before release. In fact, I often have clients complain about having to remaster their audio tracks as part of the delivery requirements, which ends up being quite expensive. One of the things that a good entertainment lawyer should do for a client is to know the reputation of a distributor before starting negotiations. I have worked with most of the film distributors worldwide so I can generally warn a client about problems like these before even beginning to negotiate the deal.
The second thing that can be done is to make sure that the distributor duties are specified in the distribution agreement. Often at first there is little or nothing in the agreement that specifies that the distributor must do anything other than pay royalties. I worked with a major studio last year that did not even specify they had a duty to release the film! Fortunately I pointed out the issue to the business affairs person and he was happy to correct the problem, but I wonder whether he ever changed the template or just our deal. I have found that distributors are generally very amenable to making changes to agreements, but only if the problems are brought up before the deal is signed. After signing it is typically hard to get anyone to even return a call.
Finally, once the contract has been signed and the film has been released, go over the agreement carefully and see whether there are any provisions dealing with distributor duties. There should at least be an obligation to distribute the film, and you may have negotiated for the distributor to complete certain delivery items. What you will not find is any right to stop the distribution of the film, because in any commercial distribution agreement one of the most important provisions from the distributor side is what is called a “waiver of equitable relief,” meaning the filmmaker is waiving any right to get an “injunction” or to stop the distribution of the film for any reason.
Please consider retaining our firm to review the agreement and find out your legal rights. BLAKE & WANG P.A. (www.blakewang.com) has a number of package rates that can help make our services affordable even on independent film budgets.