Monday Prescriptions – On The Legal Side

Hi Film Folk!

This Monday The Film Doctor Team would like to turn your attention to all of those tedious, mind-boggling pieces of paperwork that accompany the wonderful venture of filmmaking – your NDAs, PLIs and other abbreviations. In other words, let’s talk about the legal holes you should avoid falling through.

Before anyone can call ‘Action’, here’s a list of essential paperwork that needs to be in place.

Operating as Limited Liability Company

Because your film project is essentially a business, if you intend to bring investors on board you should register your film production as a Limited Liability Company (LLC). By doing so, the Producer of the film can avoid personal liability for the business’s operations – we all know that making films is a high risk endeavour and you don’t want find yourself individually exposed to and held solely responsible for any occurring issues, e.g. creditor demands.

Film Doctor - Paperwork to deal with

When developing a film project, you could first create a temporary LLC – the “Development Company” – that develops a project slate until each film is ready to be funded and produced. The Development Company would carry out all of the development work, such as, for example, acquiring the literary work or screenplay on which the film is based. When the project is ready for funding and production, it is transferred to a separate LLC (the “Production LLC”). It is common practice to create a separate LLC for each film, thus insulating the producer’s other projects from failure or liability. The Development Company often serves as the manager of the Production LLC thus creating a double level of protection for the individual producer. Anyone working on the production should be hired by and paid by the Production LLC.

On that note, make sure to set up a separate bank account for your film production needs.

Intellectual Property and Copyright

Film projects are intellectual property and as such need to have legal ‘owners’.

Even if it’s a friend’s script (or you’re writing/directing/producing all in one), you need to own the rights to making that film project. This might not seem like a big deal to you when you’re in production stages, but once you get to the point of seeking distribution and/or exposure (e.g. festivals) for your film you need to have the following papers signed and cleared:

Script & Story Rights – If your screenplay will be based on a book, magazine article or other published work, this will involve optioning or purchasing the film rights from the author (or the publisher or other owner if it is a work-made-for-hire). If it is based on a life story, you will need to acquire the life story rights from the subject individual. If you are basing your screenplay on a story reported in the news or on a person’s public life, you may not need to acquire the story rights so long as you use your own research to create the screenplay. However, even in a non-fiction context, acquiring the story rights may be a way to obtain cooperation from the author of a published work or the individual whose life story you want to use.

If it is your own, original screenplay, a proof of rights is the work’s registration with the likes of  Writers’ Guild of Great Britain (WGGB) or Writers Copyright Association (WCA) (or WGA for US-based projects).

Music Rights –  you need to have a Music Cue Sheet, that lists all of the music contained in a production including the titles of each track (or cue), composer(s), publisher(s), lyricist (if any), performing rights affiliation, and use (theme, performance, background, etc.) and timing of each music track. The music cue sheet help determine royalties payments (received by the composer/publisher, for when the film’s music is publicly broadcasted anywhere, in any context) and whether a performance fee needs to be provided as well. If you’re using music that has already been published, e.g. famous pieces/songs, be prepared to spend a lot of time investigating who owns the rights to it (contact the latest music publisher) and a lot of film budget money buying those rights.

If you can, opt for unsigned bands or hire a composer to produce an original soundtrack for your film. Alternatively, music libraries have a selection of tracks with pre-cleared rights – which you’d pay significantly less for than any song in your CD collection.

Shooting Permits, Parking Permits & Location Agreements

As brought up before by Film Doctor The Bugs That Bite Your Independent Productionit is imperative to have relevant permits in place before your start your production. If the shooting takes place in what is classified as public premises and/or there is a chance of your production partially obstructing the street traffic or having passers-by in shot, you must contact the relevant borough’s film office and apply for a shooting permit. These normally don’t take more than 5 working days to process and issue, however times and fees vary, depending on the scale of your project/request.  Provision: you are not legally obliged to have a shooting permit paperwork for a crew of 3 people or less and when you don’t set up a tripod (‘No sticks on the ground, no fee to pay’). However, for shoots involving public locations which are a). historical/tourist landmarks, b). heavily trafficked, or c). subject to extra security, you should always notify the local police office.

Make sure to draft location agreements, clearly stating your obligations as a Production, even if you’re shooting in a friend’s house – if a family relic gets broken, you’re responsible for it.

Public Liability Insurance

One piece of paper you cannot start production without is Production Insurance, including Public Liability Insurance (PLI) and  Employers’ Liability Insurance (ELI), covering a range of production-related activities – from equipment hire to obtaining shooting permits. There is a number of insurance providers with departments specialising in the entertainment/film industry, e.g. Essex Insurance Brokers.

Production Services Agreements

These are your contracts with your crew and cast members. Part of them will fall under the intellectual property category, e.g. actor’s voice, name and image in the film, so you need to make sure you’re granted with copyrights – part of actors’ employment terms & conditions should be signing a Release Form. It certifies that once the completed film is released to public, the attached actors cannot oppose the final version of the project, its screenings and won’t hold you responsible for things like defamation of character (any hypothetical bad publicity, career damage or damage to public image, as a result of the actor’s association with the production).

In a similar fashion, documentary productions require all interviewees to sign a Contributor’s Agreement, which proves they’ve given their consent to be part of and associated with your production, and cannot make claims for invasion of privacy, etc. 

A special note to working with Child Actors – any child under the age of 16 needs a licence from their local authority to perform in any film. It is the Producer of the film who will need to apply for the licence from the child’s local authority and the parent of the child will have to supply the producer documents such as the child’s birth certificate and a school letter authorising absence. The licence granted needs to be kept on set at all times. There is also a strict limit on hours of work that a child actor can legally do.

Crew Contracts need to state their and your obligations for the duration of the production, as well as agreed pay rates.

As you progress with your film project, make sure to further investigate all legal obligations and accompanying paperwork, that you need to have in place. Additional professional help and advice can always be sought out from entertainment lawyers and industry organisations/unions, e.g. Equity (UK)/ SAG (USA), BECTU (UK), etc.

‘Monday Prescription’ No.15 – Protect your film project with every legal document required. Secure your rights and know your paperwork.


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Have a great week!
The Film Doctor Team
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