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Legal Considerations in Development

You probably thought that embarking on a creative path meant avoiding paperwork and red tape. Unfortunately – or fortunately, if you think that progress and technology are good – pretty much everything operates under some kind of legal framework, including the agreements you implicitly signed when you logged on to this website. So before you assemble all the individuals necessary to work on your project, and definitely before you start paying them actual moneys, you will need to make sure that your project has all the basic legal elements in place.

Photo: Public Domain | U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Grace Lee

Know Your Rights

So is your idea completely original? I mean really, really 100% your own true creation? If it is, you’ll want to register and even copyright the story to make sure this is airtight. However, if it’s based on anyone else’s copyrighted material or life events, you’ll need to make sure you have these rights. Generally, these deals are negotiated through an option purchase agreement, which gives you a window of control over the material while you attempt to realize the project. However, the numbers involved in these types of deals – time and money – can vary. The monetary amount you agree to will also be factored into the project’s budget, so don’t promise an author or real life hero some unrealistic payout you’ll never be able to raise. These deals also usually go through lawyers, agents and managers. So unless you’re a moonlighting legal counselor, at the very least you’ll need to hire a lawyer or hope that some of your friends and loved ones have graduated law school by now. There’s also the issue of on-screen credit, as well as the possibility of defamation and libel issues, especially if you’re working from the whole “based on a true story” side.

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Roll Credits

Once you’ve secured legal and life rights, and assuming you have the money to pay your cast and crew, you’ll also need to think about the credits on your project. This doesn’t mean to start envisioning how dazzling your opening credits sequence will be. While it may seem like everyone-and-your-grandmother can just receive a producer credit of some kind, there are actually real guidelines that determine these roles on a film. Investors, in particular, can get nervous if it seems like too many other players have control over a project. And if you’ve gone the union route, the guilds often have something to say about who gets credits as well. So again, be realistic about what’s available in your budget, as well as the contribution each individual working on your project is actually making. And make sure you have everything in some form of written agreement before the cameras start to roll.

Liability

If you think that people make films, TV shows and web series, you are in fact right. That is assuming you, along with the Supreme Court, believe that corporations are people too. Even if it is just you roaming the streets with a second-hand video camera, chances are you’ll want to form some kind of limited liability company (“LLC”) for your production. Believe it or not, even the coolest, most anti-establishment indie filmmakers use LLCs to provide legal and financial protection for their project. Essentially, this is just a bunch of paperwork to prevent individuals involved with the production in any capacity from seizing your home, car or other personal assets if they become disgruntled. It also can keep you out of jail if one of the extras hanging out on your set for the day decides now is the moment to embark on a career as a master criminal. Possible financiers will also rest easier knowing your production isn’t an elaborate shell game to embezzle their funds. In fact, these money folks will probably insist you form some kind of LLC before signing any checks…and if they don’t, maybe you want to think twice before accepting their cash.

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