8.11.2011

8 Legal and Business Tips Filmmakers Often Overlook

From an article I wrote for the May issue of the NALIP-NY newsletter (There is a NY-centric focus but the advice is translatable to other US cities):

8 Legal and Business Tips Filmmakers Often Overlook
Filmmakers are so caught up in the artistic prospects of their project that they forget that every time they start a production, no matter how small, it is essentially starting a new business.   Many filmmakers prefer avoiding the business of filmmaking to immerse themselves in the art of filmmaking.  BUT because film is such an expensive and collaborative artform, you will not get to make your art without understanding the business.   You should be aware of the business and legal issues so that you can address them early on, get further ahead in the industry and find ways to improve or protect your production financially, logistically and, even, creatively.
  1. Get insurance – Many filmmakers think they can’t afford to pay for insurance.  But can you afford to pay someone’s medical bills if there is an accident?  Most insurance brokers will tailor the insurance premiums to fit your budget, so you might only have to pay a couple hundred dollars for a million dollar insurance policy. Depending on your production get General Liability, Equipment, Worker’s Compensation, Errors and Omission (E&O), and/or maybe even some performance related insurance.
  2. Get permits – Don’t think of it as a burden, think of it as a resource.  Although sometimes you have to play guerrilla, it is better to avoid it.  The New York City Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting is very helpful to filmmakers with permits and more.  Note that before you get a permit, you will need insurance.
  3. Use SAG agreements – The Screen Actor’s Guild is interested in helping SAG actors work.  They know that most filmmakers can’t afford to pay actors but it’s better for an actor to be working for credit then to not be working. That is why they have drafted agreements that cover even the “brokest” filmmaker.
  4. Always look into city, state and federal tax incentives
c)       Federal Tax Incentives
  1. Get  signed release forms – This one is simple but easily overlooked.  Review your final edit and make sure that anything or anyone on the screen (cast, extras, props, music, footage, locations, and any non-incidental trademark logos & art works) has given permission to appear.
  2. Copyright pointers – It would take a textbook to cover the topic of copyright but at a minimum know that copyright does not protect an idea or concept, only the expression of such idea.  Copyright does NOT cover titles, short phrases, typeface, facts, historical information, or works in the public domain.  The scope of U.S. copyright law is essentially domestic. The U.S.’s membership in the Berne Convention assures U.S. copyright holder’s protections overseas.    At a minimum, register your scripts with the Writer’s Guild of America and then the U.S. Copyright Office.
  3. Fair Use – Everyone, especially documentarians, should know what constitutesfair useof copyrighted material i.e. where using it in a production without permission will not constitute infringement.  Fair use is allowable for purposes of criticism, commentary, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research.  In addition, four factors are taken into account:
a)      Purpose and character of use (is it for profit or non-profit?)
b)      Nature of the copyrighted material
c)       Amount and substantiality of the portion used
d)      Effect of the use on the market value of the copyrighted work
  1. Know your rights with a distributor – Never grant rights to your work until you can be assured that you will see a return. Also:
a)      Limit editing rights. Do not allow the distributor to remake your film.
b)      Contractually own the marketing materials your distributor makes for one territory so you can use them in other territories.
c)       Use the Independent Film Television Alliance to collect foreign royalty revenues.
Stay on the forefront of these issues by, at a minimum, regularly reading THR, Variety and Indiewire.   As any lawyer or accountant will tell you, an informed client is the best client.

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