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Legal Guide for Independent Filmmakers and Film Producers [w/ 180+ Free Contract Templates]

You’ve probably given it a lot of thought. You’ve decided that you want to make a better world by making relevant, independent films.

Films where your artistic expression is not bound by your contract with movie moguls who, in their interest in only the returns, end up running the show.

Films so revolutionary, it can shape the consciousness of today’s youth.

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It sounds like an ambitious project, and you have no idea where to start.

We here at Film Savvy have come up with a short guide that will help you.

When starting a business in the field of independent filmmaking, you must first consider two (2) very important things:

  • One, the laws governing business structure

  • And two, laws governing intellectual property rights

It is important to be familiar with such laws, to make sure that your rights, as well as the rights of your clients are protected.

Business Structure

Just like any other business venture, the first concern faced by the filmmaking entrepreneur is to establish its structure.

“Why do I need to do this?” you may ask.
Generally, setting up your business as an entity will not only help divide the financial and economic risks, but will also allow you to separate your personal finances from that of the firm.

Whether you choose to have a Sole Proprietorship, Limited Partnership, Limited Liability Company, or Corporation, each will have its own pros and cons.

“Then why aren’t all businesses corporations, if it lowers the financial risk?”

Of course, you have to remember, while the risk is divided, the same goes for the profit.

Whatever your situation is, it is best that you seek sound legal advice before choosing a business structure that best suits your vision of a filmmaking firm. You must then weigh the pros and cons, and see if the end result matches your ideals for your business.

Intellectual Property Rights

Typically, intellectual property rights concerning copyright are most important to independent filmmakers.

Rights where only the copyright owner has the rights to adapt, reproduce, arrange, perform, distribute, or sell copies of the work.

The Golden Rule regarding copyright and filmmaking is not too difficult to fathom.

You must make sure to not only protect your own work from would be copyright violators, but also make sure you’re not infringing on the copyright of others’ work when taking on a project.

Getting a copyright over a screenplay is fairly simple. You only need to put the idea into tangible form, meaning to write it down or type it. That shouldn’t be too hard now, should it?

However, should infringement occur, you will not be able to file a lawsuit for damages unless the copyright is registered with the Copyright Office, or with a similar governing body in your country.

“What if the original author dies? Does that mean copying his work is now fair game?”

In general, a registered copyright remains valid for 70 years after the death of the author. If there is more than one author, it is valid for 70 years beyond the death of the last surviving author.

Other useful resources on business structure and intellectual rights:

Other Legal Issues to Consider

Remember that as an independent filmmaker, you are likely to encounter a multitude of legal issues, particularly those regarding contract and employment laws, so it is best let your decisions be guided by an attorney who has much experience in such cases.

More in-depth guides to the laws and business of independent filmmaking are also available here:

So now your filmmaking company is up and running. What’s the next step?

Among other important considerations, are the Production Agreements. It is also wise to seek competent legal advice when engaging actors, whether adults or minors, as well as casting directors.

Engaging the Actors

For actors or contributors (e.g. interviewees), it is best to make sure they sign a contributor’s release form. These forms with protect your right to use their performances/contributions in your film, as well as in the related marketing campaigns.

For actors who only appear fleetingly in the background, and do not have any dialogue in the film, it is general practice to not require such forms.

In addition, the Term of Engagement is an agreement that must stipulate that the actor is required to be present for a certain period to complete the filming of his or her part, including rehearsals and wardrobe fittings.

The producer may also require the actor to be present for re-takes, post-synchronization and other post-production services, while taking into account the actors’ prior professional commitments, if any.

Here’s a sample of an Actors Contract Template:

contract template for actors

If the actor is a minor below the age of sixteen(16), a license is generally required from their local authority before they can perform in any film.

Applying for this license will require a statement of details on the probable performing hours, as well as an updated medical certificate.

While it is the producer of the film who is required to secure the license from local authorities, it is the child’s legal guardians who will have to provide documents such as the child’s birth certificate and an authorization from the child’s school.

Other free contract templates and forms for actors and casts (as curated by FilmmakerIQ):

Remuneration

“Who gets paid what, and when?”

This simply refers to the amount to be paid to the actor as compensation for his or her services, as well as when this amount is to be paid. Oftentimes, this is due once the actor has fully rendered his or her services, in some cases at the end of the shooting period or post production.

However, in feature films, actors are usually paid at the end each week of the ongoing shooting period.

Credit

“Who did what, now?”

This is important because you’re not only recognizing another person’s hard work, you are also making sure the audience knows who he or she is. In giving credit to an actor, clauses in the contract should include the position of the actor’s credit, whether it be in a single card in the on-screen credits, or in the advertising and marketing material.

Expenses

“I have to pay for what?”

Also included in the contract are stipulations that cover the expenses that the producer is willing to provide for the actor. Some examples are accommodations when shooting on location, transportation, as well as daily living allowances.

Location Agreements

“Where to?”

Having a location manager can be vital for your location shooting needs. It is a good idea to hire someone to be in charge of finding the locations and making sure they can be used for your project. It is best to have a location agreement in place before shooting a film, rehearsing, or taking publicity stills on someone else’s property.

If you have a design team, and will need to make additions and alterations to the premises, the location manager is often the one who makes sure that the location is, as much as possible, restored to its original condition.

You may also want to check out these free contract templates and forms for filming locations (as curated by FilmmakerIQ):

“Who else?”

Obviously, the responsibility of having an independent filmmaking company doesn’t end with keeping actors happy during shooting. You will also have to consider everyone who works behind the cameras.

Everyone from the camera crew, to the sound crew, to the special effects personnel to the sound engineers, and even to the caterers and security staff, will all play a part in making your films.

Giving them the proper credit, and of course, making sure they are paid, is by no means a walk in the park. Communication, as well as transparency will be a huge factor in making the gears of your filmmaking company turn.

Some useful free contract templates and forms for film/stunt crew, equipment rentals as well as sound & music,  (as curated by FilmmakerIQ):

For distribution, copyright, trademark and releases:

These are only a handful of the many legal issues you may encounter in the independent filmmaking industry. Never, ever underestimate the value of professional legal advice when putting up a business of this nature.

For a more comprehensive legal guide for filmmakers – you can also check out Filmmakers Legal Guide: for Freelance Video Producers by Shaun Spalding on Udemy.

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