If you don’t have your ducks in a row, meaning all agreements negotiated and signed, no distributor will take on the risk of litigation that accompanies distributing a film with pending legal claims. Why should they? You did not run your business like a business, but they sure as hell do, and your film is not worth a lawsuit to them.
Is this because documentaries are not considered moneymakers, so the business and legal aspects of filmmaking are overlooked? Even if it’s not about the money, there are other important things to consider, including intellectual property rights, professional reputation and credits. The business of documentaries relies heavily on relationships, so part of your job as a documentarian is to make sure your relationships with your team are clear, solid and embodied in agreements.
Long before you go out into the market with your film, tie up your loose ends and understand that a distributor will require you to provide signed work for hire agreements with all your key crew (i.e., director, editor, cinematographer). If you don’t have those agreements, you won’t get distribution. And if you don’t understand the concept of work for hire, please Google it immediately. It is crucial for you to understand the basics of copyright law, because that is what determines ownership and hence, what you can and cannot do with your film.
Separately, for those documentary filmmakers producing a film about a living person (note – there are some exceptions here, but that’s for another article), you must obtain in writing that person’s agreement to participate and appear in your film and release you from defamation and other claims. This is non-negotiable!
Don’t assume anything. Even if you trust your co-director more than anyone, you still need to get an agreement in writing. If not, I will be here to help, but it will cost you multiples of what you would have paid had you hired an attorney early in the process and obtained signed agreements. It may also drive you to therapy, drink, chain smoke or have excessive Oreo intake, because it is incredibly upsetting when you have gone the distance with a film but can’t get to the finish line because that former friend of yours who edited the film “for free” is suddenly demanding things you never imagined. And now that editor has a copyright claim because you never clarified anything or had a work for hire agreement signed.
Now the life or death of your film is at stake. So you have to compromise and if you cannot compromise, you may have to litigate, a very costly and very unpleasant predicament indeed.
If you believe in your film and want it to reach an audience, it’s your job to educate yourself about this unavoidable aspect of filmmaking and to get some form of legal assistance very early in the game. You’ll thank me later.
Love documentaries? Watch the doc short “Healthy: A Documentary,” a deadpan satirical short about a young man attempting to eat healthy for two weeks, below: