Here is a summary of some of the most important ways film¬makers can protect their interests:
1. OBTAIN ALL PROMISES IN WRITING. Don’t accept oral assurances from a producer or studio executive. If they promise to spend $50,000 to promote your film, put that promise in writing. If there is not enough time to draft a long-form contract, insist on a letter agreement spelling out the essential terms.
2. REGISTER ALL WORKS WITH THE COPYRIGHT OFFICE. Before you pitch a story, write it out and register it with the U.S. Copyright Office for maximum protection.
3. OBTAIN AN ARBITRATION CLAUSE: Make sure contractual disputes are subject to binding arbitration where the prevailing party is entitled to reimbursement of legal fees and costs. Arbitration is less costly than litigation, and going to court is not much of a remedy if you can’t afford it.
4. WATER DOWN THE WARRANTIES: Warranties are promises. For example, when you sell a script, the buyer will want you to promise that you have not plagiarized another writer’s work or defamed someone. If you make an absolute warranty, you will be liable, even if you made a good-faith mistake and honestly believed that you had secured all the rights. Therefore, it is best to make your warranties “to the best of your knowledge and belief,” rather than making them absolute.
5. RETAIN POSSESSION OF YOUR MASTER ELEMENTS: Independent filmmakers should not relinquish possession of their master materials. Instead, give the distributor a lab access letter permitting it to order copies of your originals held in your lab under your name. This way, if the distributor ever breaches your contract or goes bankrupt, at least it will not possess your masters. You should also retain control of your original still photos and any artwork.
6. OBTAIN INSURANCE COVERAGE: Typically the producer purchases insurance, including Errors and Omissions (E&O) insurance, which protects the producer if he inadvertently infringes another’s rights (e.g., defames somebody, infringes their copyrighted material). It is best to purchase the E&O policy early so that coverage begins during preproduction. If you be¬gin production and a claim is made, insurance companies may decline to issue a policy or insist that the policy exclude the pre-existing claim. E&O insurance will pay (minus a deductible) for your defense and any damages that may arise from liability for inadvertently defaming someone or infringing their rights.
7. CHECK REFERENCES: The most airtight contract in the world offers limited protection against a scoundrel who ignores its terms. Carefully investigate any party with whom you contemplate do¬ing business. For distributors, confer with other filmmakers who have had dealings with a distributor over the course of several years. Check with the Filmmaker’s Clearinghouse on my website (www.marklitwak.com) to see how indie filmmakers rate various distributors. Usually, people who have lousy reputations have earned them.
8. TERMINATION CLAUSE: If the other party defaults, it is best if you have the right to terminate the contract and regain all rights to your film in addition to monetary damages. Writers should insist on a reversion clause so that if a script is bought and not produced within a reasonable amount of time (e.g., five years), all rights revert to the writer.
9. INVESTOR MONEY: Never make any “offers” to investors or accept any investor money without fully complying with all ap¬plicable state and federal securities laws. These laws apply when you offer investments to “passive” investors, which are investors who provide financing but are not actively involved in making the movie. Have an entertainment attorney with experience in securities prepare appropriate disclosure documents (e.g., a Private Placement Memorandum).
10. SAVE COPIES: Retain copies of all correspondence, contracts, and drafts of your screenplay. When you make a story sugges¬tion or enter into an oral agreement, follow up with a letter documenting the extent of your contribution.
11. DEFINE ADVERTISING EXPENSES: Distribution contracts should specify in writing the minimum amount the distributor will spend to advertise and promote a film. It is wise to cap ex¬penses as well. Obtain a detailed definition of which advertising, promotional, and marketing expenses are recoupable, thereby precluding the distributor from reimbursing itself for overhead and any inappropriate or undocumented expenses.
12. INDEMNITY: The filmmaker should be indemnified (reimbursed) for any losses incurred as a result of the distributor’s breach of contract, and for any liability arising from material added to the script/film by the distributor.
13. RIGHT TO INSPECT BOOKS AND RECORDS: The distributor should be required to maintain complete books and records with regard to all sales and rentals of the motion picture. The film¬maker should receive quarterly producer reports with a detailed accounting statement along with any payment due. In the event the filmmaker wants to examine the distributor’s books and records, he should be permitted to do so with reasonable notice. If an audit discloses a significant underpayment (e.g., $5,000), the distributor should reimburse the filmmaker the cost of the audit.
14. LATE PAYMENTS/LIENS: All monies due and payable to the filmmaker should be held in trust by the distributor. In addition, the filmmaker should have a lien on the filmmaker’s share of the gross receipts derived from the film. The distributor should be required to pay the filmmaker interest on any late payments.
15. REMEDIES: A filmmaker should be given at least three years from receipt of a financial statement, or from discovery of an accounting error, to object.
16. ASSIGNMENT: No assignment (transfer) of rights by the distributor should relieve it of its contractual obligations to the filmmaker unless the filmmaker consents to the assignment.
17. FILMMAKER DEFAULT: A distributor should give the filmmaker at least 10 days’ written notice of any alleged filmmaker default (breach of agreement) before taking any action to enforce its rights.