Signing film contracts may feel like a formality on smaller productions, a Crew Deal Memo, Producer/Director Contract or Talent Release has real meaning. It is a legally binding employment agreement and should be drafted and signed with care. Here are some best practices to guide you through the process.
Are all the parties properly identified? Is the scope of work properly addressed? How about pay? Hours? OT? Are state laws and regulations properly considered? What about insurance? An attorney will ensure that all of these concerns are properly identified and addressed in your agreement and that the parties are properly protected. These may seem like small issues. Yet, for example, failing to adequately identify a company may mean a crew member has no recourse in seeking payment. On the flip side, sloppy language in a contract may mean your independent contractor is now your employee which can trigger very liberal employment laws. That can be a very expensive proposition, indeed.
2. Understand what you are signing
Not all jobs are the same. Not all parties are the same. A good contract succinctly lays out each party’s expectations. When you draft an agreement you are responsible for the terms you create, and if those terms aren’t clear or fail to address your intentions, you as the drafter, could find yourself in a legal pickle.
For artists or crew, signing on the dotted line without understanding what you sign is also dangerous. Did you address ownership or rights on the project? Or your right to use the material? Your attorney will ensure that the language of the contract addresses your needs or concerns specific for each project. For the artist or crew member an attorney will explain in plain terms exactly what it is that you are saying yes to when you sign on that dotted line.
3. Don’t be afraid to negotiate
Contracts may bind you to things that are averse to you, and often favor the party who drafts it. But keep in mind that contracts really are a recitation of an agreement between two parties. As noted above, contract terms can be fluid and all terms will not apply to all parties. With that in mind, every term can and should be negotiated. .
An attorney can identify unfavorable or unclear terms and either negotiate directly or help you to negotiate the most favorable terms available. You might not get all of the changes you seek, but it’s worth the effort to sort it out at the beginning of your agreement, rather than fighting it out at the end. Which brings me to the fourth and final reason…
4. Save money in the long run
It is far less expensive to have an attorney draft/review a good contract, than to litigate a bad contract after the ink is dry. Let’s face it — while the “A” word isn’t four letters, most folks consider “Attorney” a bad word. No one wants to deal with attorneys. They cost money, and it feels like they complicate things. But the truth of the matter is getting attorney input at the outset really provides a layer of protection for you.
The attorney will explore issues or concerns that may not occur to you, consider creative options that benefit the parties, and most importantly — help you to avoid the worst case scenario — expensive and draining litigation. Litigation is where the “A” word gets its reputation, and for good reason. Lawsuits and resulting attorney fees cost far more in the long run than allowing a reputable attorney to assist you in the first place.
So consult a good attorney — heck — develop a relationship with one. They will give guidance, provide counsel and advice, and ensure that you have a solid agreement that is easily understood, fairly negotiated and diminishes the chance of costly litigation.
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