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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Indie Filmmakers and their Legal Mistakes

An Independent film always begins with good intentions, optimism, and trust. With shoe string budgets and limited resources, filmmakers rely on favors, goodwill, and an almost delusional assurance that it will all work out in the end.

However, the blind faith that drives the artist can often spell disaster at some point down the line, when promises and ill-defined agreements cripple a film or ruin filmmakers who didn't understand the legal entanglements they were getting themselves into.

I hear the same stories from screenwriters again and again. Tales of strife, betrayal, and outright theft. My friend, Jordan Susman, who I met when we were both graduate students at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, heard the same stories, and after years struggling as an writer/director, he switched careers and became a entertainment attorney, one with a focus on independent film.

Since so many readers of this blog are putting together smaller budget projects, I asked Jordan to answer a few questions, hoping I could help others could avoid the most common mistakes.

Disclaimer: nothing stated in this blog should be construed as legal advice. Every situation is different. If you have a specific a legal question, you should contact a lawyer.

Sean Hood: You are an entertainment attorney, but you have a very specific focus on independent film. Why did you chose this direction for your career.

Jordan Susman: I am, and always will be, a recovering filmmaker.  If I had the artistic temperament (and perhaps a little more talent), I would still be making movies. Instead, I represent filmmakers and other "talent" in litigation matters -- usually against people and companies with a lot more resources.

SH: How has your experience at the USC school of Cinematic Arts, and your experience as an independent filmmaker shaped your approach as an attorney.

JS: I have a great deal of empathy for my clients. I know how hard it is to make a movie -- the passion, drive, determination and emotional rollercoaster it entails. In addition, it's given me the tools negotiate effectively on behalf of my clients because I actually know the substantive issues. To give one example, I was in an arbitration, fighting over control of a movie. The other side offered to give my client one week to edit a feature film. One week! Since the other attorney (who specializes in entertainment law as well) had never been in an editing room, he had no idea that one week was not sufficient time to edit a feature film.  But because I knew the process, we were able to negotiate a workable schedule for completing the film.

SH: What are the three biggest mistakes Independent Filmmakers make that can get them into legal trouble later.

JS: Number 1 by far is ye olde verbal agreement. Yes, oral contracts are valid and enforceable. But having something in writing and signed by both sides cuts out a lot of confusion and misunderstandings down the road.

Number 2 that I see all the time is people not registering their scripts with the copyright office. If you want to sue someone for copyright infringement, registration with the WGA just doesn't cut it, it must be registered with the copyright office. It only costs $35, but it entitles you to potentially receive your attorneys fees and $150,000 per infringement if you sue someone.

Number 3
dovetails with Number 1: People are afraid to have difficult conversations early on and often kick the can about decisions down the road. It is better to work out your credits and roles on the movie when you're still friends than waiting until you're bitter enemies. (Sorry to be so negative. I'm a litigator, I see people at their worst.)

SH: What do Indie screenwriters need to be concerned with, from a legal perspective?

JS: Always register your scripts, even outlines or treatments, with the Copyright office before you share it with anyone. If someone is giving you serious notes, or is making additions to your script, get something in writing that their contributions are work-for-hire and they are not a co-author. (Unless, of course, that is your intention.)

SH: Filmaking is filled with strife, arguments, broken promises and misunderstandings. When is it time to hire an attorney?


JS: As soon as there is an agreement to do something, like option a script, produce a movie together, develop an idea together, etc. (I'm saying this as a litigator -- not as someone who negotiates and writes deals. So, I have no financial interest in answering this way.)

SH: What are some common kinds of legal problems that your clients hire you to solve?

JS:
  • All sorts of fights over who controls a film, including artistic and financial control. 
  • I see alot of cases where two people work together on a project for months / years, and then one of the "partners" goes and sells the project without the other partner.
  • Writers who don't get paid.
  • Producers who don't get credits they were promised.
  • Producers firing the people who actually made the film (ie. directors, DPs, editors), and then reneging on their commitments to pay.
  • I also get hired a few times a year to get websites to cease and desist from posting copyrighted material.
  • Online defamation is a pretty big right now, with people posting slanderous material about other people.
  • And lest I forget...I sometimes have to get restraining orders against stalkers.

SH: When is it NOT a mistake to rely on a "handshake deal" or "verbal agreement"

JS: It is ALWAYS a mistake to rely on a "handshake deal" or "verbal agreement".

SH: What's the craziest thing you have seen in your practice?

JS: The level of greed exhibited by some people is extraordinary. This greed is usually combined with a sense of entitlement that the rules don't apply to them -- even when there is a written contract.

SH: What is the best part of your job?

JS: I get to empower creative people. And usually they have been mistreated by people who are NOT creative.

SH: Ha... perhaps the "artistic temperament" you referred to earlier contains mostly foolish ambition and blind optimism. I plead guilty. But every artist needs someone to watch his or her back.

Again, nothing stated in this blog should be construed as legal advice. Every situation is different. If you have a specific a legal question, you should contact a lawyer. Mr. Susman can be reached at:

Law Office of Jordan Susman
1100 Glendon Av., 14th Floor
Los Angeles 90024
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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Interview With Conan Blogger Alexander Harron

After doing my interview in Rama Screen about the upcoming film, Conan The Barbarian, I wasn't really expecting my comments to stir up any notice from movie fans.

But then I was startled and intrigued when various bloggers around the net went over my answers with a fine tooth comb - analyzing and parsing each and every sentence. One such website, Conan Movie Blog, took my interview as seriously as if it were a philosophical treatise... and then sliced it into ribbons. You can read Alexander Harron's editorial on my interview, and the subsequent analysis by his readers, here.

Far from being insulted, I was fascinated with how passionately and seriously Alexander and other Conan fans were tracking the new Conan movie, so I contacted him and asked him a few questions of my own...

Sean Hood: Both you and the readers of your blog have a deep, emotional connection to Conan. What is it about Conan's character that resonates so deeply for you?

Alexander Harron: It's difficult to pin down, because I'd dare say every Conan or Robert E. Howard fan has different reason. Some love the Conan stories and character for the pure sense of adventure and excitement, that Howard's inimitable prose sent them on a white-water rapid of sheer, visceral joy. Others love them for the surprising philosophical depth, the unexpected symbolism and subtle allusions to history, mythology or fiction, or even the sheer poetry of his words. For me, I think it's a combination of both: Howard was one of those rare writers who could engage readers on both levels. One could read, for instance, "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" with nothing else in mind but enjoying Conan's relentless chase through the mountains, relishing the rivulets of blood streaming down sword and flesh, savouring the tactile descriptions of skin, hair, blood, metal, heat and cold. Yet one could read the same story from a completely different point of view: to study the allusions to the myth of Apollo and Daphne, compare and contrast Atali to Atalanta, note the mythological implications of Conan's pursuit through the wastes strongly resembling the dead Norseman's journey to Valhalla. The Conan stories that do this best are among the best stories Howard wrote: the Conan stories that Howard simply churned out in a matter of months only cater to one aspect (usually the former), and so aren't nearly as interesting.

As for Conan as a character, he is a man of many contradictions: he's a bloody barbarian who loves wine, women & song, but he's also fascinated by philosophical discourse, art, poetry and history.  He's cynical and dismissive of civilization, but he's also willing to exploit it, and enjoy its fruits.  He's a violent, dangerous, murderous warrior of ill repute who views no man as his master, but he's also immensely protective, honourable, generous and loyal when he wants to be. He's blessed with superior genetics and a harsh upbringing which gave him greater strength, stamina and acumen than the average man, but he also works to improve himself throughout his life. He hates and fears magic, but when lives are at stake, he's willing to brave supernatural horror or use unpredictable sorcery for his own ends. Conan also grows as a character throughout the series: from a naive, near-feral, superstitious thief to a cynical, bloodthirsty, amoral pirate; from a grizzled, cynical mercenary grunt to a charismatic leader of men; from a wandering adventurer who would risk his own life for a score of settlers and sacrifice untold riches to save a dancing girl, to a generous and conscientious king eager to improve the lives of his subjects. Quite a remarkable character arc, but done so subtly that one might initially think he doesn't change at all.

SH: Why would you spend so much time and passion on Conan Movie Blog tracking the production of a movie that you have been so fiercely critical of? Why bother?

AH: Before I took up the reins on the Conan Movie Blog, I was very vocal in my criticisms of the film on The Cimmerian and my personal blog. I was deeply disappointed that the film was announced to be an origin story, but was hopeful that it would not follow the same path as the first film. When the synopsis and character sheet was leaked and confirmed to be legitimate, I was faced with a conundrum: should I wash my hands of the film entirely, or continue to keep up with it? Part of the reason I chose the latter is a sense of obligation to new or prospective Howard fans. A lot of people who have never heard of Robert E. Howard - even some who've never heard of Conan - are going to have their first experience of the character through this film. I decided that it would be important for new fans to know exactly where this film stands in the Howard canon from a Howard fan's point of view. Instead of simply belly-aching about how the film doesn't gel with a Howard fan's view of Conan, I felt it would be more productive to at least state why this was the case. Plus, there's the fact that most news sources aren't exactly knowledgeable on the source material. There is still confusion over whether this film counts as a remake of Conan the Barbarian or not, let alone how closely it adheres to the stories. One website was concerned whether the name change of Khalar Singh to Khalar Zym would upset the purists. Thus, even though I've been critical of the film - and I'm willing to give credit where it's due, such as with Jason Momoa, who's done nothing but impress since the initial announcement - I feel it's important to know what many people's first experience of Howard will be like. That way, Howard fans will be prepared for their questions and queries, and we can answer their questions on the film's relation to the stories.

SH: If a future film were to be based directly on a Howard story or novella, which one in particular do you think would make the best movie? Which one would fans most like to see?

AH: In terms of delivering general audience's expectations for a Conan film, "The People of the Black Circle" would be a great choice. It's set in an exotic milieu with striking landscapes and ancient civilizations, it features a female protagonist in revealing clothing who's nonetheless strong and independently-minded, plenty of action and adventure, diabolical sorcery of a subtle and mysterious nature, abundant secondary characters including a fascinating anti-hero, eldritch horrors, and one could even argue Conan undergoes a character arc. However, if you were to ask the average Howard fan which story they'd most love to see adapted, a great number would respond with "Beyond the Black River." It may lack beautiful women in need of rescuing, the prospect of treasure, and a happy ending, but it has all the violence, horror and mystery one would want from a Conan story, as well as potently encapsulating the barbarism-civilization dynamic, and giving us one of the most compelling and human co-protagonists in any Conan story.

SH: Other than Conan, what Robert E. Howard character would you most like to see on screen?

AH: Dark Agnes, without question. Agnes is one of the most important of Howard's creations, because she single-handedly destroys the stereotype of Howard's female characters being nothing more than damsels in distress, only fit to be rescued or ravished by the lantern-jawed hero. What's more, Agnes is one of the very few Howard characters outside of his comedies to be written from the first person perspective, adding a great deal of intimacy with the character, and making her trials and hardships all the more affecting. I maintain that "Sword Woman" is not only feminist, it's rabidly feminist. Men take an absolute beating for the injustices meted out on women throughout the centuries, the plight of the average woman is distilled and heightened, But Agnes isn't just some straw feminist, a Katherine who has to be "tamed," no Hippolyta who must be "defeated" by a real man: she's the protagonist, and she's completely in the right. Despite her resentment towards men for her place in society, she is very sympathetic, and despite being strong, she doesn't lose her femininity. She's a 21st-Century warrior woman created in the 1930s. Best of all, she already has an origin story, and the two completed stories are so closely connected, they could be combined into a single film.

I'm curious to read how other Conan fans would answer the same questions, so if you have an opinion, please comment. - Sean Hood
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