By Peter John Ross
Apr 15, 2006, 10:54

Have you ever heard of success stories like Kevin Smith making Clerks, Edward Burns directing The Brother McMullen, or Spike Lee doing "She's Gotta Have It”? Well, what if they forgot to cross a "T" or dot an "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 over their movies 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 indie filmmakers forget the "business" half of the movie business. Contracts are a very serious aspect of making movies. All to often it's enticing to go out & shoot your movie with a camcorder & 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 & coming local actress and they even did have contracts, and they used the often used "SAG Experimental" contract which everyone thinks is a safety net. There's one problem with that, a loophole for people who become SAG. If you do a SAG Experimental contract, if you land a video distribution deal, any SAG actors have the right to VETO the sale. This young actress made it big in movies like Jerry Maguire, and then these really bad movies made 7-8 years prior became valuable, and the producers lost the sale because she exercised this little loophole. Even if you do a non-union DV short with your friends, GET THEM TO SIGN RELEASE FORMS! This allows you to send it & screen it at film festivals, and if you should be so lucky to get the movie broadcast on TV or distributed. 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 a little different. 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 100% statewide. In California you almost ALWAYS need a permit to shoot anywhere. Building exteriors work a bit differently. Usually a building that is publicly large & 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 very much protect the image and the company much more so, and leans heavily towards the corporations. Again, if you shoot at your friend's parent’s house, but you don't get written permission, if they felt the use of their house in the finished movie portrays their neighborhood poorly, they can stop your movie from being released. They can't say much if you can present a signed location agreement where they gave you legal permission to use their place in your movie.

On the flip side of things, when working with friends, read carefully the contracts among yourselves. I have personally been screwed over by people that, at the time, I would never have believed things would fall apart. Now I have lost all rights to 2 of my movies that I wrote, directed, produced, and edited. Whenever I put them on a short film site, shortly after, a cease & desist order comes to the site from my former partners. No real reason, just to be annoying. Similarly, I know a guy who had an idea for a movie, went to his "friend", and asked for help to make this a movie, and is now being legally entangled over who owns the character from the movie. In this case, the guy did NOT get contracts signed before hand, and never knew that his buddy was going to screw him over until he presented the contracts AFTER the movies got some play at film fests and had some early buzz. Now he can't do 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 & James Bond - we're a bunch of morons who made some DV shorts with a camcorder in 3-4 hours.

If your movie gets selected to do something like play on TV in Canada on "Moviola - channel for shorts" or the SKY NETWORK's "Short Film Channel" in the UK or the Sundance Channel or IFC, they will be able to play your movie. There's this thing big budget movies have listed called "Errors and Omissions" that deal with this kind of thing, but we're on the low end of the financial end, but simple contracts for Locations & Actors can be found for free online. Use them. Always.

Cover your ass and get it all in writing, that way IF your movie gets success, you can grab hold and enjoy the ride, or possibly become one of the “almost got famous, but I forgot to get the contracts”.


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