Filmmakers -Take The Law Into Your Own Hands!

Published On August 8, 2009 | By admin | film, film distribution, film finance, film marketing, film production, filmmaking
Mark Litwak Books

Mark Litwak Books

This week I read on Twitter that at the Topanga Film Festival, Producer Hawk Koch advised aspiring screenwriters and filmakers to get an agent or a lawyer because that’s the only way to get your material checked out by serious people in the business.  On conference calls and at seminars, someone invariably asks how to get an agent and the answer is usually the same – unless you’re connected or very lucky, it’s difficult, if not nearly impossible to do so   When I asked a number of producers and industry insiders at a Film Finance Forum a few months ago if they had any suggestions for unknown screenwriters and filmmakers I was told – if you can’t get an agent, find an entertainment lawyer.  The main reason for this is that producers and other executives, who worry about protecting themselves legally,  are open to being approached by attorneys as well as agents.

Before selecting a lawyer to represent you, it’s wise to learn how these attorneys work, so that you’re able to assess their credentials.  While it’s not necessary for you to find the highest paid or most famous attorney in the field (and unlikely you’d be able to hire him or her), it is important to find a qualified individual with expertise in this area of law.  There are intricacies in these types of  negotiations that your lawyer needs to be skilled in.  For example, should you be working on a distribution contract, you need to know which marketing expenses you are liable for repaying the distributor before you are paid any money. Vague clauses regarding overhead or travel can add up costing you a lot of income and should be rewritten or removed.

So, in addition to entertainment industry knowledge, you need an attorney with strong skills in contract and labor law, litigation and intellectual property.  Also, be aware that there are a lot of “wannabees” who would like you to believe they have more expertise than they possess. Your lawyer must be savvy at drafting, reviewing and negotiating contracts with publicists, managers, film studios, distributors and other businesses  and ensure that all paperwork is fair and legal. This person should have  established relationships within the industry, so that  contacts can be made and deals can be completed quickly and he or she should provide sound advice to inexperienced clients.  Also, remember that there are sub specialties within the entertainment industry, so if you’re a filmmaker, make sure that the lawyer you select has experience in this area and not just in other types of media. 

Although I’m not recommending any attorneys in particular, I’d like to help you get started by directing you to some of the more reputable and established lawyers, who provide good advice and information freely on the internet.  Reading their articles or signing up for their email blasts can give you great insight into how the legal mechanics of the industry work and help you ask the right questions when seeking representation.

Mark Litwak

Mark Litwak

Let’s start with Mark Litwak.  Based in Beverly Hills, his firm has represented award winning filmmakers, who have produced such films as “Hustle and Flow”, “To End All Wars” and “Prisoner of the Mountain”.  Litwak has packaged movie projects and served as Executive Producer on “The Proposal” and “Pressure”.  He received his Juris Doctor degree from the University of San Diego Law School and has been an attorney since 1977. As a law professor, he’s taught at U.W.L.A., Loyola Law School and the University of Puget Sound School of Law, as well as teaching entertainment law courses in U.C.L.A.’s extension program for 19 years. Mark is the author of six books and has contributed articles to the L.A. Times, The Business of Film and The Hollywood Reporter.  He was also named one of the 25 Most Influential People in Film by Film Festival Today. For a complete list of Litwak’s accomplishments, to access his online articles or to read his blog, check out his website at http://www.marklitwak.com/.  

Gordon P. Firemark

Gordon P. Firemark

The next attorney I’d like to call your attention to is Gordon P. Firemark.  Concentrating specifically on the entertainment and media industries, Gordon’s firm is known for assisting small and midsized companies, as well as individual artists and producers.  He publishes the Entertainment Law Update, a newsletter for artists and entertainment industry professionals and received a B.A. in Radio, Television & Film from The University of Oregon before receiving his law degree from Southwestern University School of Law.  Located in Los Angeles, prior to starting his own firm, Gordon worked for Hanna Barbera Productions and MGM/United Artists Worldwide Television Group.  You can find interesting articles and links and sign up for his email updates at http://firemark.com/gordon-firemark/.

Jon M. Garon

Jon M. Garon

Another attorney known for his internet presence is Jon M. Garon of Gallagher, Callahan and Gartrell PC in Concord, NH.  His firm is recognized for their multidisciplinary approach and use of technology and Jon has built a reputation for his expertise in business development and intellectual property issues. A graduate of the University of Minnesota and the Columbia University School of Law, he is licensed to practice in Minnesota, California and New Hampshire.  Garon  is the author of the book, The Independent Filmmaker’s Law and Business Guide and the blog, Entertainment and Entrepreneurship and contributes articles online at Filmmaking 101, which you can read at http://www.gcglaw.com/resources/filmmaking101/index.html

Corky Kessler

Corky Kessler

Last, but by no means least, is a gentleman I’ve had the good fortune of meeting at a few conferences, Hal “Corky” Kessler.  Perhaps best known as an expert regarding Section 181 Tax Law, which benefits filmmakers, Corky is a Partner in the law firm Levin Ginsburg in Chicago.  He graduated summa cum laude from John Marshall Law School and spends a great deal of time teaching filmmakers how to package their films and use the tax laws to their best advantage.  Kessler is an Adjunct Professor in the Film Department of Columbia College and at Northwestern Law School, where he teaches entertainment Law.  He has also personally produced movies including the Russell Crowe film “The Sun of Us”. Corky speaks at numerous seminars and conferences and also sends out an email blast updating filmmakers about changes in both the state and federal film tax law incentives.  You can find out more information about him at www.lgattorneys.com and check out his upcoming appearances in our events section.

With these resources available to you online, you’re now prepared to begin dealing with legal issues facing you in the entertainment industry.  The more knowledge  you have, the better equipped you’ll be to find an attorney you’re comfortable with, who will be able to assist you in making industry contacts and negotiating deals until you’re in a position to find representation through an agent.

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