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What Can a Filmmaker Expect to Earn Over a Lifetime?

What Can a Filmmaker Expect to Earn Over a Lifetime?

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This post was original published on the IFP blog and has been republished here with permission.

What kind of income can a filmmaker expect to earn over his lifetime? A jury in San Diego recently considered that question and came up with a multi-million dollar award to a promising 26-year-old filmmaker who suffered serious injuries in a car accident.

Russell Sheaffer was a 24-year-old doctoral student at Indiana University who was in California working on a documentary film. He was driving a car on Interstate 15 when a large truck crashed into a line of vehicles, causing a chain-reaction. Sheaffer’s Toyota was struck from behind, causing his driver’s seat to break and pushing his car into a large SUV in front of him.

The case is tragic but also interesting because the amount of income a young filmmaker can expect to earn is difficult to calculate. It is certainly more speculative and uncertain what filmmaker might earn compared to many other occupations. Those of us in the industry know of talented filmmakers who struggle to just support themselves, and many eventually leave the field if they are not able to succeed in this highly competitive and unpredictable business. Even among those who succeed, the amount of income earned varies widely.

In such cases, evidence of the plaintiff’s income prior to the injury is admissible to show the extent to which his earning capacity may have been impaired, but a jury cannot, in the absence of any evidence tending to show an actual impairment of earning capacity, compensate the victim for an alleged loss. The harm to be compensated for is the loss actually sustained by the plaintiff, and not that which would result to the average person from a similar injury.

As a general rule, uncertain or speculative damages are not recoverable. Judges and juries cannot arbitrarily pick a number out of the air to compensate a victim for lost future income. A victim suing for damages is permitted to base his or her recovery on his or her prospective earnings for the balance of his or her life expectancy at the time of the injury, undiminished by any shortening of their life as a result of the injury. Recovery of such damages is consistent with the general rule permitting an award based on the loss of future earnings one is likely to suffer because of inability to work for as long a period of time in the future as the plaintiff could have done had he or she not sustained the injury.

Sheaffer sustained serious injuries including facial fractures to his jaw, an imploded sinus and a minor traumatic brain injury. He underwent two major surgeries, and after a year of doctor’s visits, CT scans and 3-D modeling of his jaw revealed a traumatically induced, rapidly progressing, and degenerative joint disease. After the crash he was hospitalized for three days and was discharged after surgery and his jaw was wired shut for eight weeks.  He required subsequent surgical interventions for pain. Future surgical procedures and continued care and therapies will be required in the future for his jaw and chronic pain.

Sheaffer certainly showed promise after he earned a degree in film and media studies from the University of California, Irvine, and a master’s degree in cinema studies from New York University. At NYU, he co-wrote and co-directed “Masculinity and Me” with actor and filmmaker James Franco. He was named one of Variety’s 110 Students to Watch in its annual Education Impact Report. At the time of his injury he was a doctoral student at Indiana University.

The jury awarded him $12,500,000 for past and future pain and suffering, $2,888,373 for past and future medical expenses, and $2,005,107 for past and future loss of earnings.

Mark Litwak is a veteran entertainment attorney and Producer’s Rep based in Beverly Hills, California. He is the author of six books including: “Reel Power: The Struggle for Influence and Success in the New Hollywood;” “Dealmaking in the Film and Television Industry;” “Contracts for the Film and Television Industry;” and “Risky Business: Financing and Distributing Independent Film.” He is the author of the CD-ROM program Showbiz Film & TV Contracts, and the creator of the Entertainment Law Resources website.

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