In the past 10 or so years, lots of businesses have sprung up to fill the need for people who want contracts and legal documents, but don't want to spend the money on an expensive attorney. Many filmmakers have taken advantage of this, using these contracts to help with their productions, but there may be pitfalls to following this course. Entertainment lawyer Gordon Firemark has some interesting information regarding using boilerplate contracts. Are those free contracts free for a reason? Have we really done all the due diligence on our films?
On a small indie production, it's unlikely that you're going to have a full-time lawyer. With that in mind, many filmmakers have been turning to free online contracts to help complete their films. According to Firemark, (great last name, by the way) this may not always be the wisest path:
In the context of the entertainment industry, those risks are amplified by the somewhat special, and often rather peculiar nature of our business. One pitfall is the “inside baseball” occasioned by the use of terms of art, terminology which though seeming to have clear meaning to a layperson, actually has different and very specific meanings within the context of show business (this is actually true of any mature business, in which the participants have developed a shorthand of common usage.)
Another pitfall is that, with the constantly changing nature of independent film, like technology advancements, distribution methods, and evolving custom and practice of the industry, your contracts and forms may be out of date by the time you get around to signing them:
Approaches to contracting that were considered “standard” two years ago may have changed radically because of a recent lawsuit, or the development of a new technology. One glaring example that's easy for a layperson to conceptualize is the continued presence, in film deals, of clauses calling for a director to receive a “VHS copy” of the finished film. I don't know about you, but I no longer even own a VHS player. Similarly, the complex grant of rights and reserved rights language has had to keep up with the times. Unfortunately, many contract forms found in books or on the web are simply outdated. The more technical language of these older forms, and more importantly what's left out can be very dangerous.
Though Firemark is a lawyer himself, he does have an interesting point to make on retaining counsel: "Just as you'd hire a qualified contractor to build your home, shouldn't [you hire] a lawyer to draw up the contracts that make the foundation of your business?" If you can afford one, great. If you can't, there are other options for you.
If you are looking for online contracts and forms, Filmmaker IQ has put together a list that might be helpful. But, keep in mind that the legal hoops a filmmaker must jump through are many, such as securing your film's chain of title -- something many indie filmmakers forgo, and end up paying for it later.
Independent filmmaker Jordan Clark is developing his website Chain of Title to help filmmakers navigate the treacherous terrain of entertainment law for free. So, not all online legal help is dangerous, (Clark is a nice guy -- and knows his stuff!) You can like Chain of Title's Facebook page and get a bunch of legal information until Chain of Title's website goes live.
What do you think? As an indie filmmaker, have you run into any problems legally that you weren't expecting? Have you used contracts or forms from the internet, and if so, what has your experience been?