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When do I need to involve an Entertainment Attorney?

In gatherings of writers and filmmakers I often hear “I have a project in the works and have been thinking I might need to involve an entertainment attorney. When should I do that?”

Often the unfortunate answer is “months ago.”

While writers, filmmakers and other creative types seldom put legal considerations at the top of the priority list, that is where they belong, at the beginning of a project. As the cliche goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” And indeed a bit of legal advice from someone knowledgeable in entertainment law can prevent massive headaches later.

Consider a nightmare scenario – all too common: A few acquaintances decide to collaborate on a project; one is a writer who will handle the script writing duties, another is an aspiring director. They recruit: a friend that has a suitable movie or video camera, an upcoming singer/songwriter for the music, a talented aspiring choreographer for the dance moves, and a burgeoning make-up artist to do the zombie make-up and spurting blood. They’ll shoot much of the film in the local art gallery, offered for free by someone’s mom, with massive, beautiful paintings in the background. (That’s right, they’re making a zombie musical set in an art gallery).

Figuring there’s enough horror in their show already, they skip involving a lawyer. “Lawyers are expensive,” says one. “And unpleasant,” says another. “Nonsense,” says I – but that’s another story.

All goes incredibly well, and on their shoestring budget and by the sweat of their brow, they make the scariest, funnest, zombie dance movie the world may ever know. It’s edited and ready to be sold and distributed.

There’s only one problem – made up of hundreds of little problems. No studio or distributor will touch the movie because the intellectual property rights are horribly split among the collaborators. There’s no single company or LLC that owns the script, or the film, or the music, or the make-up design, or the choreography. There are no contracts confirming those involved, above the line (writer, director, actors, producers, etc.) or below the line (set construction, crew, film processing and printing, etc). The writer owns the rights to the script, but the cameraman probably owns the rights to the images he shot. The composer of the music owns the rights to his work, but the performing musicians may own the rights to their performances. Unique make-up design may be owned by the make-up artist, and the actors may object to the use of their images as a violation of their rights of publicity. And the beautiful paintings in the background of most shots – someone else owns the copyright to those images, so those images cannot be shown without their permission.

Work it all out after the fact – credits, attributions, permissions, compensation? After everyone knows it’s an amazing project that could launch careers? Good luck! And even if resolution were possible, there’s the time and energy to resolve all these issues, and just when everyone thought the end was nigh. And as they all move on to their next projects.

Ultimately, in the interest of saving a few bucks on lawyers fees – or simply wanting to avoid such seemingly vampiric beasts, our zombie musical troupe won a Pyrrhic victory – a masterpiece of a movie that cannot be sold or distributed.

While an entertainment lawyers’ time may have seemed expensive before, the greatest expense is the wasted time, talent, blood, sweat and tears of all those involved. “It’ll make a great show reel,” says one. “That won’t pay my rent,” says another.

The moral of our zombie fable is to involve an entertainment attorney early in your creative process. Even a small investment in legal advice can yield big rewards in the end. Ultimately the greatest expense of your project may be the little money you try to save on learned advice.