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On producing a documentary

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tduncan777On producing a documentary
by on Aug 18, 2007 at 4:56:17 am

I need a little advice. I'm pretty green when it comes to business structure and legal matters.

I have access to a group of people whom are pioneers, innovators if you will, of a topic that would make a great documentary. A few have already discussed and agreed to work with me on this but I need some key individual's involvement to make this a success. I have some mutual friends of these persons and I am optimistic that they would get involved with the project when asked and offered an appropriate offer.

Question is what is an equitable arrangement for their involvement? Should I get a contract up front to lock in their commitment? I am thinking a percentage of future revenues will suffice, maybe a small amount up front, but this is being funded mostly out of pocket. I could use some advice on making deals with "celebrities" or recognizable persons. These people are approachable and will probably not require agents or lawyers to be involved, but I want to have ideas for an equitable deal before I talk to them.

Because the project would not succeed without a few of them, what kind of structure or instruments would you suggest we use? I appreciate any advice I can get.

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Mark SuszkoRe: On producing a documentary
by on Aug 19, 2007 at 2:56:58 pm

Well at the very least a deal memo. You must have it on paper, no question.

Also you should know that actors, authors, celebrities of whatever stripe, don't always have the final say on a deal they agree to. I remember writing Isaac Asimov in my college days to ask him for his blessing on a project to produce a radio serialization of his Foundation Trilogy on my college radio station. He wrote me back to say he loved the idea, but that everything was up to his publishers, Doubleday. From whom I could never get the time of day, of course. While your contacts may be all for your idea, chances are their lawyers and agents will have to be involved, so best to get with them sooner rather than later.

You didn't make it very clear if you are seeking content contributions from these people, a financial investment, or both. I would caution you that I feel asking the same person for both a financial investment in the project and a creative contribution at the same time is the ticket to a world of hurt. Don't do it. At worst, let them ask other people for money, but if they are int he program, don't ask them to also bankroll it. That's my two cents.

As to how much they should get back from being in the thing, those deals range all over the map. Some big name actors will do a gig for free or for scale, just because they like the part and don't care about the money because they are already rich. Some will agree to defer their payment until after the project has reached some milestone, this usually also involves giving them a percentage off the gross, aka "points off the gross". Or a marketing deal, where they get the profits from any toys, t-shirts, sundtrack albums, whatever, that spin off the main project. This is what made Lucas really rich from the first Star Wars; Fox basically gave the merchandising rights away to him, not knowing what they had. So more of the money from the toys goes to George.

The important constant in all those deals is, everything must be spelled out in writing in advance.

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Tim WilsonRe: On producing a documentary
by on Aug 19, 2007 at 5:59:08 pm

[Mark Suszko] "ome big name actors will do a gig for free or for scale, just because they like the part and don't care about the money because they are already rich. Some will agree to defer their payment"

There's a great article in the Artistic Passion issue of the Cow magazine about a documentary filmmaker who used both of these approaches. The musician Mercan Dede (a giant in the world music genre) agreed to work for free because he liked the project. Narrator Peter Coyote -- a political activist long before he was an actor -- agreed to defer his fee.

So ask straight up, I'd love to have you involved, what would it take. No need to say you have no budget. Nobody has a budget. :-)

[Mark Suszko] "everything was up to his publishers"

Often the case with writers, even more so with musicians. They may simply not have the legal right to offer permission to anything, because they have no ownership of it, or because ownership is restricted.

Serialization rights for Asimov is a perfect example. It's easy to imagine someone of his stature owning the rights to his characters (absolutely NOT a guarantee for an author), but because of the publisher's investment MAKING him someone of that stature, they want some control over them.

Now that I think about it, some actors have similar restrictions based on contracts with people who have nothing to do with your project. Maybe they're in contracts that won't allow them to work for anything less than scale, or only allows deferral if others are deferring as well, etc.

The specifics vary so widely, though, that once again, it's worth asking.

Re: a written agreement: even if you don't feel you need a written agreement, I can't imagine that the celebrity won't want one.

Which means that you DO need one. If any issues need settling down the road, they can surely afford to pay their lawyers more than you can afford to pay yours.

But seriously, start by asking. If they're interested, the rest is negotiable. If they're not, doesn't matter what resources you have lined up for them.

And if they're just not available, neither their interest or your ability to pay matters. :-)

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tduncan777Re: On producing a documentary
by on Aug 19, 2007 at 6:13:13 pm

Thanks for your input guys, very much appreciated and useful.

As far as written document, I was thinking along the lines of something to have while I assemble the other components, investors etc.

I suppose that would be like a Letter of Intent or letter of interest at minimum?


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Timothy J. AllenRe: On producing a documentary
by on Aug 20, 2007 at 1:52:46 am

Of course you will want to get things in writing. The whole point of a contract or "memorandum of understanding" is to make sure that any issues between anyone participating in the project are resolved during negotiations before you start production. No one should go into any project that has a risk without being clear about everything they can be clear about.

If the documentary is dependent on the participation of those "key people", it would be prudent to include words that confirm the level of participation in the project. Financing for documentaries such as this may be dependent on a completion bond" or other written guarantee that you have the means to complete the project.

But... before you start writing the contract... make sure you have clear in your mind both the minimum things that you need from them and what you really would like to see. Also be clear in your own mind about what you want to provide as consideration and where your own personal lines on that will be drawn.

Make sure that you have a way to compensate them fairly even if the project ends up not being as popular as you think it might, but also make sure that you don't feel taken advantage of if it does do as well as you hope.

After you decide your terms and your flexibility for those terms, call the key players in this and talk with them first. Prepare for some creative "back and forth" before you draw up the documents that includes clauses for their payment or "consideration". When I've arranged for things like this in the past, often the person appearing in the production wants even less (or something different) than what I would have offered them. They had a better idea of what they wanted than I did, I just had to know whether I would agree with their proposal. ;-)

I've presented "memorandums of understanding" only to be presented with a similar document from the actor's organization. Since both memos said basically the same thing, I was happy to sign their document (after I talked with my attorney and made sure that I was clear about the language.)

Just make sure you present the "memorandum of understanding" as a means to make sure that everyone involved is clear about their roles and rewards of the project... and again, be prepared to be flexible - at least up to that line you have already drawn in your mind.

Oh... and you should still get an entertainment or media attorney to help with this, it's way cheaper to have them at the front end than the back end.

Good luck!


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