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Working for the great cause...

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Michael Brown
Working for the great cause...
on Jul 9, 2009 at 3:48:37 pm

... and then having to fight for it. This is my first time here at the B&M forum, but since I stumbled over (and thoroughly enjoyed) the great thread "Ultimate sample typical contract for newbies", I thought I'd add my grain of salt for those of us who invest a lot of time on projects that deserve to be seen but do NOT make money! Here's a little story that I'll try to pitch as briefly as possible (ha!), and for you to enjoy, perhaps learn a bit from, perhaps have advice about:

About 4 years ago, in a European country, a wonderfully talented and quite well-known man of the theater tells one of his faithful colleagues and friends, to whom he is like a mentor and spiritual father, that he is irrevocably ill (cancer), will probably not hang in there much longer, and instead of having his biography written, would like 'friend' to make use of the 400 + hours of available archive footage to make a biographical film about his life and work: the theater he created 30 years ago and directed until he passed away last summer, in order to leave it to friends and family as a non-commercial memorial gift (on DVD).

So Friend, who is not a filmmaker (my oldest and best friend), calls me up and asks for my support in making said film –for no budget, but for the cause– and I agree and work many months with him over a period of 2 years, before and after Theater Man's death as his co-director and editor, providing him with my editing suite and my experience. Theater Man had agreed that the film could hardly be made for nothing, and that he would do his best to help out financially on a private basis. I tell Friend that my support is nonetheless linked to the condition that we consider using this 'personal' version as an exposé for a longer broadcast version, for which I can hunt down potential producers and national commissioners in order to acquire a minimum budget. Friend agrees, and vaguely pitches the idea to Theater Man, but they do not discuss it further as Theater Man's health decreases rapidly and friend chooses to not burden him with the subject until he regains strength. Theater Man did not recover in time to see the work in progress. Whether or not he mentioned the film project in his will is unknown to us but we suspect it, since after Theater Man's death, his Widow does come up with a little cash now and then to support Friend – we're talking $2,000 at most... I pitch in personally by paying for mine and Friend's trips back and forth in order to work together, loan him money, and pay for external hard disks, a new monitor etc... Keeping it cheap, I invest another 1,500 out of my pocket and even turn down well-payewd jobs in order to pursue editing. Widow is not informed of this, as we choose to not burden her with production details either.

Friend and I use lots of music in the 37' film, most (but not all) of which comes from Theater Man's or our colleagues and acquaintances who we know and can touch base with and we are sure will gladly contribute with their work, but considering the Film's non-commercial (or strictly promotional) use, we use the music before contracting the rights. (Yeah, that was a bad move)

In the weeks before 1st anniversary of Theater Man's death, Widow is kept posted on Friend's progress (she's not even really aware of my role in the production), regularly complains about how long the film is taking to be made, has no idea of how much care, emotions or efforts (and money) are invested, but eventually gets a preview copy that she hangs on to for 10 days before agreeing to it. (Compliments or a word of gratitude are too much to expect)

One week before D-Day, she asks Friend to supply 250 DVDs of said film in order to give it to said friends, family and colleagues, according to Theater Man's desire. We explain that one does not burn and print 250 individual DVDs without spending a full week's time that no one has on such short notice, and we choose to have the DVD glass mastered and reproduced by a lab. Lab says fine, gives us a good deal by quoting the minimum order of 500 at an unbeatable rate, promises to make the deadline, and Widow and Son agree (verbally). When Son is prompted to pay the Lab's bill (apparently he handles the estate), he does so.

Then Lab announces that it is not entitled to deliver DVDs without a release from national Music Rights Organization (we have less than a week left), regardless of the fact that no income whatsoever will be generated by the film, so I submit music tracks for said release and beg for and get a temporary one with which Lab agrees to deliver exceptionally: hence I become licensee of used music, although license is not yet granted and application still in progress to this day. Then I start researching the copyright owners to ask for written permission and so on and so forth – loads of paperwork, a bloody nightmare, they're all over the world and impossible to reach.

Lab delivers the DVDs on time! Widow ignores them and makes no use of the deadline (she's too busy acting and trying to find her way through the corridors of a theater she's been working in for 20 years – yeah, that was bit personal). Days later I intervene by kindly explaining per email to Widow and Son the many production facts they are not aware of and request they sign a 4-point agreement in order to "cover my ass" before handing out the DVDs; these points request that they agree with the film's content, that they agree to only passing out the DVDs including a written suggestion to donate to the lacking production funds (since they're apparently broke too, this was our ingenious idea of perhaps one day getting our personal expenses reimbursed), that I, as co-director, editor and IPR-owner, am entitled to use the film for my professional promotion purposes including festivals and competition, and that they keep a log of names of recipients, in case music rights should not be cleared successfully and Rights Organization and Lab request to have DVDs returned and destroyed. This European law allows for that.

In the mean time, to clear one of the music tracks, I make a deal with Performer/Composer (a dear friend of mine) to acquire use of her track and in exchange, she uses the sequence as is in the film and turns it into her official music video. She is thrilled and honored to lend her voice for the project and convinces her label and music publisher of the idea. I upload the hence created 4-minute "clip" to Youtube, keeping it private, but in order to post it on Radar Music Video site for professional directors' opinions. I soon discover that said link only works if Youtube upload is clicked to "live". I do so, and within the 24 hours during which the clip was live and viewed about 22 times, 25-year old Son reads my aforementioned explanatory email, clicks the link to my Youtube page in my signature, discovers the clip of which he had no knowledge (another bad move, but look at the deadline we're talking about – all this happened within a week!), calls me up furious claiming it's a disgrace how I used pictures of his deceased father, and requests I remove it immediately from the web or he will take the matter to his lawyer. I remove the clip immediately and send him a letter explaining the situation and regretting I had upset him.

3 Days later Friend and I both get a letter from Son's lawyer in which their client requests delivery of all DVDs, that we refrain from seeking additional financial support for the project, and that we sign an injunction to refrain from screening the film in any way whatsoever (said injunction even refers to a 5,000 € fine for each violation).

Friend and I respond to Lawyer making it clear that the claim is based on a total lack of information and on contradictions (the letter is full of them) and that we recommend Son withdraws his claims and sits down with us to devise a peaceful and constructive solution to get the film where it belongs: namely seen by the people it was intended for by the deceased protagonist and de facto commissioner himself. I have my letter of refusal checked by my own lawyer (specialized in European audiovisual rights issues) who agrees that Son and his Lawyers have no case and mine is air-tight, and that my letter is the right move.

Here I sit, co-director and therefore co-owner with Friend of IPRs, solely legally responsible for music rights as applying licensee and entitled to and even obliged to either pursue music rights research for permission to use, or if need be, empowered to request return of every produced unit for destruction thereof, should I choose so or should music rights not be cleared.

I especially sit here waiting impatiently for Lawyers next move and wondering how the hell that could happen when all we wanted was to fulfill the wish of a man who's story deserved to be told, heard and seen. Do I have to face it and refrain from generous well-meant projects in the future?

The film is wonderful, heart-felt, and moving, and every test audience agrees unanimously that no feelings were hurt or lack of respect can be felt by the film, and that we should continue fighting for the good and generous cause. What do you think?

Thanks for reading this long short story.


Michael Brown

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Bill Davis
Re: Working for the great cause...
on Jul 9, 2009 at 8:34:22 pm

Anyone who flippantly asserts that a "Producer" is just a credit at the end of a work reserved for a boy/girlfriend/hanger on who contributed little and just wanted to bask in the glow of being associated with a work should read this.

The sad truth is that so few understand the painstaking work that goes into creating and distributing creative content.

This is a cautionary tale with the solid ring of truth to it.

And explains a bit of why everyone in this "golden age of cheap NLEs and digital camcorders" desires to make videos - but so very few have the discipline and skills to actually do so.

Nice story - well told.

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Mark Suszko
Re: Working for the great cause...
on Jul 10, 2009 at 12:23:14 am

Old Polish Proverb:

"If you do someone a charity, they will never forgive you for it".

Thanks for the cautionary tale, but don't let it scare you off from further Pro Bono work. You made some errors on the legal side when your heart got in front of your head, on short deadline. Let it all grind to a stop and try to re-start it when everyone is back on the same page. Your friend is beyond caring now how long it takes. God rest him. So let it take as long as it takes to get it right. Do it for love.

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