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Lawyers, Deals and Money: An Indie Filmmaker's Checklist

By Ray Zone

The Independent Film Producer's Survival Guide
A Business and Legal Sourcebook
By Gunnar Erickson, Harris Tulchin and Mark Halloran
<Schirmer Trade Books
$34.95, 330 pps (paperbound)
ISBN 0-8256-7279-1


This big book (9x12 inches) is a comprehensive overview of the legal aspects of making an independent film. It also touches upon legal aspects of studio filmmaking. As with most books of this type, it is no substitute for hiring an attorney, but it will prepare a producer for hiring and making the most efficient use of an attorney.

The three authors have a wealth of experience in entertainment law, with over 20 years involvement in production of hundreds of motion pictures, TV programs and video productions. Entertainment law, the authors admit, is "a very specialized, arcane area of the law." This book is an attempt by the authors to set forth the basic building blocks of entertainment law and some of its secrets.

In their introduction the authors offer a few caveats. The advice they offer in this book primarily applies to entertainment law in the Los Angeles area and reflects industry practices as applied in California and the United States. In the US, statutes (legislative law) and case law (reported cases published in legal books) regulate contract law, which is the primary set of legal principles governing entertainment practice. These statutes and case laws operate on a state-by-state basis, so they may vary.

The authors also acknowledge that they have simplified much of what they have to say and that certain legal subtleties have been streamlined for easier reading. Though restrained in general by attorney-client privilege, the authors frequently discuss certain films and the transactions involved as illustrative examples.

In the first chapter on "Making an Independent Film," the authors define seven primary functions or roles of the independent film producer. They are business/owner manager, project developer, project packager, project financier, physical film producer, distributor/distribution arranger and delivery/distribution/manager. Management of the independent film assets is included in these roles, including preparation of "derivative" productions that stem from the initial production.

"The job of the independent producer is perhaps the hardest and least appreciated in the film business," the authors write. They then touch upon the advantages and disadvantages of independent production as opposed to studio production and set forth some of the pitfalls and painful contingencies of working with studios. "Charm, brazen enthusiasm and political adeptness can help," they write, "but in retrospect most successful Hollywood producers chalk up their first studio producing experience as paying their dues."

A brief but candid discussion of entertainment lawyer practices is provided. "You should always deal with someone who is knowledgeable and respected in the independent film world, or whatever you pay them will be a double financial disaster for you."

Subsequent chapters chronologically cover business aspects of independent film production from the development process, deal making, finance and finance agreements, setting up the production, hiring directors, casting directors and actors. Producer deals and production agreements, crew agreements, locations, crowd releases and music licenses are succinctly discussed.

For the finished film, chapters on profits, selling the completed motion picture and delivery are covered. The chapter on selling the finished movie includes ten savvy tips—cogent and humorous—on how to handle yourself at the Cannes Film Festival. "Dress in casual clothes, except for the evening premieres and official black tie dinners, and make sure you bring a tuxedo or gown that fits comfortably. Do not wait until you get to Cannes to try it on. The shops on the Riviera are very expensive." Also, "Make sure you make friends with the concierge at the Majestic Hotel and tip him often." And, not surprisingly, "Make sure your entertainment lawyer is at your side at all times."

A brief overview of digital movie making and some of its current players is also included. Documentary producers will benefit from a discussion of some of the key issues in digital distribution, and the authors are quite up to date on some of the variable legal aspects of digital production and marketing.

Basic forms that are required in the course of legal production work are included with each chapter and they can be customized for individual use. These forms and additional forms on a CD-ROM are available on a website at

Though this book isn't geared directly for documentary production, it is a useful strategic guide for nonfiction film producers in that it covers a great many contingencies that might arise. Though cautionary in tone, the authors do attempt to balance their text with stories of success. "The one basic rule is this: Better to face your legal and business challenges than ignore them. Making an independent film is one of the most challenging and rewarding tasks anyone can undertake."


Ray Zone can be reached at