Sometimes, when you are just trying to shoot something and you have already begged all of your friends to come out and act for the day for free, the last thing you want to do is ask them to sign a contract. I mean, who wants to bother with contracts? We are just going to shoot this cool short film. We have a cool director who knows how to do all these cool editing effects and the writer has written a script that is so on point (plus we just want it to be a good time for everyone.) Contracts can feel like an inconvenience, maybe even a little scary. They can have a lot of legal jargon that might intimidate most people. Throughout my career, I have looked at many contracts. They seem to get longer and longer. It feels like the lawyers add more and more legal terminology each time.
We work in an industry where one day you can be riding your bike to the local coffee shop with free Wi-Fi, where you will have your black coffee (you of course add in sugar, milk and half and half at the fixings counter, it’s cheaper that way). You sip very slowly; you’ve got to milk that coffee for a good three-four hours. You need time to write and apply for part time jobs, while touching up the headshot you had your friend take so you can submit online to any acting post you can find. Then, all of a sudden, you get a call. Paramount wants to option your feature screenplay, which you put your heart and soul into. But wait, you did not mention that your old roommate who you no longer speak to, due to creative differences co-wrote the outline with you. This is going to get complicated. This could be a lengthy process to determine who wrote what and who is owed/entitled to what. This will cause delays, which is not good for your first big project. A delay could result in the script being shelved or not made at all. Friendships and business can be a hard mix.
Now let’s say you wrote a short film and you found a friend to direct it. Verbally, you are both producing it and you both put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into getting it prepped, shot and edited. The project is amazing and people like it. You are getting a ton of hits on YouTube and your Twitter page is blowing up, not to mention all the Instagram love you are getting (who knew your #latergrams would be this popular?) The Weinsteins call you. They are in love with your project and want a draft emailed to them yesterday. Okay, first off, this is amazing! Yes! But… both of you produced it, who has what rights to what? Are both of you entitled to move on with the project? Did you even talk about what you would do if it got picked up or optioned? You guys are friends right? Right?! Yes you are, but you never talked about money…and now its feels awkward. There is a true possibility that this is a chance at moving your career from shooting short films to feature films. How do you talk about money and titles at this point? Do not let yourself get into this situation.
Both of these scenarios could have been handled much more easily if there had been a signed agreement or contract upfront. Take the time to talk it through and type it up. Get it signed so that you are both happy before you begin the project. It may seem annoying and a bother. Trust me though, you will save yourself a ton of stress, time, and money down the road if something does happen with the project. When you beg your friends to come on board let them know there will be a contract or an agreement, plus they should appreciate you being straightforward and upfront about things with them.
Whenever I create a project or jump on board somebody else’s, I’m hoping it gets noticed and loved. I take the project knowing that I want someone at a Production Company, a Network or anyone else who is ready to put money into a production see it and want to work with me. I go into each one treating it as if it’s the next step. I look at it like a business. To me, a large part of it is the contracts. I would rather take 10 minutes up front to agree to a rate, know what is expected of me and know what my role is after we are done with the project rather than find myself left out in some way. If I don’t say something, then, I might have to bring a lawyer in to make sure my name is attached to the project as it is optioned or produced into a larger funded project.
Most of the time I learn lessons the hard way. I have made soooo many mistakes in my life and especially my career. I have not always been so adamant about contracts. I have actually worked on projects with friends and there were no contracts and it has gone very well. But one time… one time I produced a project and we only verbally talked about back end points. I took the extremely low wages because I wanted to produce for a friend. I also thought that if and when the project sold, I would make up a bit of money on the back end. I thought I was fine because the Writer/Executive Producer seemed so nice and genuine (he was friends with my dear friend the Director). When the project hit festivals, it was received very well and we got distribution! I had no contract in place. The conversation about me feeling owed back end points did not go my way. I was crushed, and I learned a powerful lesson.
Contracts do not have to be long and intimidating. Contracts should cover what you are expected to do on the project, the length of time you will be expected to do the job, payment guarantee, what you can expect if the project gets distribution or optioned and other particulars of the project. If you are writing music for the piece, make sure that is covered, if you are taking a low rate because you will get a producer credit make sure that is in writing. Each project is different and your contract will need to cover different things. Make sure you are covered on all fronts.
So… now I have convinced you of the importance of contracts…where do you get them? Well, there are several places to find contracts. Something I have done is ask my friends for contracts they have used on their projects as a Word .doc so I could make changes. I hold on to various contract templates because as my projects vary, I find myself needing options as to which template to start with. Another thing you can do is reach out to a lawyer. Perhaps you have a friend who is a lawyer who can help you create a contract, or if you create your own they can look it over to make sure you are covered. You can also look at contracts you have signed and see if it would apply to the project you are working on. Another option (and what I think is the easiest option) is to look online for contract templates. See if you can find one that you can make changes on to fit your project. I would recommend if at all possible that you have someone who is good with contracts and familiar with production legalities look over any contract you create or sign.
Something I have not touched on yet, but is still very important, is knowing what you are signing or having others sign. If you do not understand what you are signing, ask someone who is more familiar with contracts. If you know you will be signing a contract when you get to set, why not ask to have it sent to you ahead of time? Look it over, make sure you understand it. The same goes for the one offering the contract, send it to people when they commit. It will save you time on set if they get there and disagree with something in the contract. Avoid delays and send contracts to people as soon as you can.
I cannot stress enough that no matter how close you are to someone, no matter how big a favor they are doing you or you for them, make sure there is a contract and make sure you are comfortable with and know what the contract stipulates.