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View Full Version : Lesson learned: Screenwriters must have lawyers


Pasquali56
11-10-2010, 07:00 AM
I've been writing for a long time. I've had numerous options, sales, assignments and development deals. I've had agents on and off -- mostly off. But I've never hired an entertainment attorney -- until now. I have two deals I negotiated on my own that have come back to bite me big time: one sale and one option. If I had hired a lawyer to negotiate both those deals in the first place, I wouldn't have these problems. My point is that if you're serious about screenwriting, you need to hire a lawyer to review your contracts -- even your free options. It might cost you $500, $1000 -- or more. But in the long run, if you really are serious about screenwriting -- it's worth the investment.

Hamboogul
11-10-2010, 08:27 AM
While I agree that screenwriters need lawyers at some point, I think the bigger issue is that a lot of writers are so desperate for deals and/or validation that someone wants to make their movie that they enter deals that they never should've even considered in the first place.

Madbandit
11-10-2010, 09:57 AM
While I agree that screenwriters need lawyers at some point, I think the bigger issue is that a lot of writers are so desperate for deals and/or validation that someone wants to make their movie that they enter deals that they never should've even considered in the first place.


Ergo, read the contract through and through before signing it. If you're not sure, hire a sha--I mean, lawyer.

Ronaldinho
11-10-2010, 10:24 AM
Ergo, read the contract through and through before signing it. If you're not sure, hire a sha--I mean, lawyer.

The problem is that a lot of stuff means something very specific in legal terms, but can sound fairly innoculous to us non-legal types.

"It sounds good to my non-lawyer ears" is not a reason to sign something.

catcon
11-10-2010, 10:35 AM
...It might cost you $500, $1000 -- or more. But in the long run, if you really are serious about screenwriting -- it's worth the investment.

Agreed. I'll keep nagging about this recent thread:

So is it 15% or 10%??? (http://messageboard.donedealpro.com/boards/showthread.php?t=58473)

It starts off all about agents/managers but diverts into lawyers, too. I still think my attorney's deal (lesser hourly rate to keep him happy to do the work, and 1% of any deal we can make) is prime because it does the best of both worlds.

But you definitely have to do the lawyer thing. The other side always will, even if you don't ever meet them, and especially if the other side mutters stuff like "don't get a lawyer involved, they're deal killers".

Now THERE'S a flag if there ever were one! :mad:

corduroy
11-12-2010, 12:37 PM
Yes. I think that a lawyer is money well spent. My contract is dozens of pages long. There are parts where I am 100% sure it says X, only that turns out to be exactly wrong. No way could I have handled this on my own.

One note: if you have an agent at a big agency, you can probably run your contract through their in-house people and save yourself the 5%.

scripto80
11-12-2010, 02:16 PM
Anybody who works in any above the line positions in Hollywood MUST have a solid entertainment attorney if they want to truly succeed. It's a huge mistake not to.

You can lay down the terms of your own deals if you want, by researching what's rightfully owed, and negotiating your own deal should you be brave enough to do so. But even then you need someone to check the fine print. There's specific terms and wordings that a lawyer would know to look out for that could screw you royally. For instance "net profit". Some writers might sign a deal to get "2 net profit percentage points" and think that means that if a movie makes $100 million in profit they get $2 million. In Hollywood however, there ARE NO net profits. Studios will always account for every dollar, even those that are in fact part of the profits. This way they can claim no net, or hell even a loss, just to avoid paying out profits to writers, actors, etc etc. It's just little things like that, little words that can be added or left out that can completely change the intention of a contract and completely and royally screw you over.

As a writer, you should get paid a proper percentage of the production budget up front for a spec sale (or assignment) and then receive either a bonus or ACTUAL (even if small) profit participation on the back end, as well as proper DVD/video/licensing residuals in accordance with current WGA standards (even if you're not a member of the WGA), proper credits both on screen and on marketing materials, first dibs at penning any sequel and if you don't then a percentage of the writer's fee anyway since you created the original property, and residuals on any adaptations, merchandise, etc. There's a lot you SHOULD get as a writer, that you may not know you're entitled to or have the right to fight for unless you consult an experienced lawyer. And even if you know you should get this stuff and you ask for it, the contract handed to you could have fine print that nullifies everything you THINK you're getting, and by the time you realize, it's too late.

So yeah. YOU NEED A LAWYER. Never sign ANYTHING until a lawyer with entertainment industry contract experience has thoroughly reviewed it, knowing what you want out of it and had previously agreed to with those involved. Is it pricey? Yes. But it's definitely worth it in the long run.

Geoff Alexander
11-12-2010, 03:36 PM
Anybody who works in any above the line positions in Hollywood MUST have a solid entertainment attorney if they want to truly succeed. It's a huge mistake not to.

You can lay down the terms of your own deals if you want, by researching what's rightfully owed, and negotiating your own deal should you be brave enough to do so. But even then you need someone to check the fine print. There's specific terms and wordings that a lawyer would know to look out for that could screw you royally. For instance "net profit". Some writers might sign a deal to get "2 net profit percentage points" and think that means that if a movie makes $100 million in profit they get $2 million. In Hollywood however, there ARE NO net profits. Studios will always account for every dollar, even those that are in fact part of the profits. This way they can claim no net, or hell even a loss, just to avoid paying out profits to writers, actors, etc etc. It's just little things like that, little words that can be added or left out that can completely change the intention of a contract and completely and royally screw you over.

As a writer, you should get paid a proper percentage of the production budget up front for a spec sale (or assignment) and then receive either a bonus or ACTUAL (even if small) profit participation on the back end, as well as proper DVD/video/licensing residuals in accordance with current WGA standards (even if you're not a member of the WGA), proper credits both on screen and on marketing materials, first dibs at penning any sequel and if you don't then a percentage of the writer's fee anyway since you created the original property, and residuals on any adaptations, merchandise, etc. There's a lot you SHOULD get as a writer, that you may not know you're entitled to or have the right to fight for unless you consult an experienced lawyer. And even if you know you should get this stuff and you ask for it, the contract handed to you could have fine print that nullifies everything you THINK you're getting, and by the time you realize, it's too late.

So yeah. YOU NEED A LAWYER. Never sign ANYTHING until a lawyer with entertainment industry contract experience has thoroughly reviewed it, knowing what you want out of it and had previously agreed to with those involved. Is it pricey? Yes. But it's definitely worth it in the long run.

Yes, a guy I know wrote a direct to DVD sequel for a popular franchise. He got paid low six to write it. But, he had a piece of the DVD somewhat above what one would normally get. He made like 700k in the first 24 months after the release. Good job lawyer.

wcmartell
11-12-2010, 04:37 PM
WINSLOW LEACH
"All articles which have been excluded shall be deemed included." What does that mean?

SWAN
That's a clause to protect you, Winslow.

- Bill

12916studios
11-12-2010, 08:14 PM
This is why I am so glad my mom is a lawyer. Even if she's not of the entertainment variety, she can still decipher these documents and explain them for me...for free.

Ulysses
11-13-2010, 01:26 AM
Yes, a guy I know wrote a direct to DVD sequel for a popular franchise. He got paid low six to write it. But, he had a piece of the DVD somewhat above what one would normally get. He made like 700k in the first 24 months after the release. Good job lawyer.

It's probably more important to have an entertainment lawyer than to have a manager or an agent.

Don't entertainment lawyers have good contacts to people with money? That knowledge on where to go to get people interested if you want to produce yourself... I just wonder if a good entertainment lawyer can at least point into the right direction and drop a few names - which one could pick up.

MrEarbrass
11-13-2010, 02:12 AM
It's probably more important to have an entertainment lawyer than to have a manager or an agent.

This is like saying that a really bad baseball team needs a good closer.

catcon
11-13-2010, 08:10 PM
This is like saying that a really bad baseball team needs a good closer.

Maybe a better analogy is hockey: A great goalie, but lousy forwards and defense. No matter the duds up front, the goalie can still, conceivably, prevent disaster.

MrEarbrass
11-14-2010, 04:05 PM
Maybe a better analogy is hockey: A great goalie, but lousy forwards and defense. No matter the duds up front, the goalie can still, conceivably, prevent disaster.

Based on my experience that is definitely not a better analogy.

wcmartell
11-14-2010, 06:21 PM
I just wonder if a good entertainment lawyer can at least point into the right direction and drop a few names - which one could pick up.

My lawyer just does contracts. There have been a couple of times where he had another client looking for a script, so he gave them one of mine (and any other writer client he has), but I don't think lawyers are going to get you any work or open any doors for you. I depend on people passing my scripts around town - so when I end up with some meeting on a lot it's completely by accident.

But if it turns to a deal, I have a lawyer who can do the contracts and put in performance bumps. So far, have not made $700k from one.

- Bill

SoCalScribe
11-15-2010, 11:50 AM
My lawyer just does contracts. There have been a couple of times where he had another client looking for a script, so he gave them one of mine (and any other writer client he has), but I don't think lawyers are going to get you any work or open any doors for you. I depend on people passing my scripts around town - so when I end up with some meeting on a lot it's completely by accident.

But if it turns to a deal, I have a lawyer who can do the contracts and put in performance bumps. So far, have not made $700k from one.

- Bill

To Bill's point, lawyers know lots of people and often have tons of high profile clients (just like agencies, there are A-list entertainment law firms that rep A-list celebrities), but they're not generally in the business of working with creative material. They're business people who fill their days with negotiating and papering business deals. Most don't even get scripts unless it's part of establishing chain of title, copyright ownership, or for litigation.

There is the occasional circumstance where - in the course of doing business - they'll know that Client A has written a script... and when Client B mentions they're looking for something along those lines (or that he wants to work with Client A), the attorney might make an introduction or pass a script along... but those situations are few and far between. Entertainment attorneys are not in the business of finding deals; they're in the business of negotiating deals.

An entertainment attorney is an invaluable resource for a creative professional, but not a substitute for a representative (agent or manager) who spends their entire day looking for ways to sell your work.

You wouldn't want a non-attorney manager to negotiate and draft your writing contract; why would you want a non-creative attorney to send out your script? It's not that there aren't creative attorneys or business-savvy managers and agents out there... but it's just not - by and large - what they do for a living.

If you are seeking representation, you should have a agent or manager to find you work, and an attorney to make the deal. You occasionally come across the rare individual who is both... but don't assume that every attorney and agent and manager have the skills or background or interest in doing both. Most are very good at their specific skillset, because that's all they do. ;)

Racecarrobb
12-04-2010, 02:45 PM
WINSLOW LEACH
"All articles which have been excluded shall be deemed included." What does that mean?

SWAN
That's a clause to protect you, Winslow.

- Bill

Gotta love an obscure Phantom of the Paradise reference!