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SHORT CIRCUIT: Production - Setting It All Up

Dan Goforth asks entertainment attorney Stacey Davis to tell filmmakers the things they need to know to get their film off the page and into production.

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You've written the script, now you want to film it. There are a few things you need to know before you (or your director) yell, "ACTION!" - so take some advice from someone who knows where you're going and is willing to lay out some guideposts for your journey.

Stacey Davis has been an attorney specializing in IP (Intellectual Property) for over a decade. When not practicing law, Stacey is an avid writer, music and film expert. She's served on the Board of Directors for the Sidewalk Film Festival since 2003 and was the Grand Prize Winner of the festival’s short script contest, Sidewrite,in 2008. Davis and her husband Nichalaus Sims founded Under the Couch Production Company and are currently co-producing a comedy she wrote titled The Sibling Code, a hilarious celebration of siblings and the unbreakable bond of family.

Stacey Davis Headshot
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For this film, Davis has partnered with Roberta Munroe, award-winning author, producer, and international short film expert. Munroe’s book, "How Not to Make a Short Film: Secrets from a Sundance Programmer", is a provocative and practical insider’s guide to making and distributing a great short film. Munroe has signed on to direct and produce the film.

"When I first read The Sibling Code, I laughed out loud!” said Munroe. “And after Stacey and I talked, we both agreed we would make an awesome team. I’d been looking to direct my own short for over a year, and when Stacey sent me her script for The Sibling Code, I knew I'd found the perfect project!"

Roberta Munroe Headshot

Munroe joins this film project fresh off of The Parker Tribe, a comedy starring Saturday Night Live writer Paula Pell and premiering next month at the TriBeCa Film Festival. She also produced The Procession, starring Lily Tomlin and Jesse Tyler Ferguson.

I asked Stacey to take us through the basics of what a filmmaker needs to know to get their short film off the page and into production. Here is her Short Film Checklist:

Production Company. Forming the production company that will own the completed film is an important first step. Often, filmmakers are advised to form an LLC (a limited liability company) because they are relatively inexpensive to form and have fewer governing requirements than other types of entities (such as a C corporation). Once formed, the production company will be the “contracting party” that will enter into those important contracts with the writer, director, distributor, etc. and will act as a shield for the filmmaker against any personal liability. For that reason, it’s advisable to form the entity as early into the process as possible.

Securing IP Rights. All films start with a concept or a script. Whether that script is penned by the filmmaker or a third-party, proper documentation must be in place vesting rights in the script with the production company. Sometimes the filmmaker and the LLC are really one in the same – nonetheless, you need to ensure that a written assignment transfers ownership of the filmmaker’s rights in the script to the LLC, thereby vesting ownership of the copyright in the production company. If you are working with a third-party writer, the production company should enter into a Screenplay Purchase Agreement, or similar agreement, whereby the production company purchases rights in and to the script (including the copyright). This provides the contractual basis for the production company to turn the script into a film.

Under either scenario, the production company must ensure that the copyright records with the U.S. Copyright Office are up to date and accurate. The screenplay (and later the completed film) must be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Even though many short films are one stop shops (written, directed, lensed and edited all by the same person), that is not an excuse to skip over these important steps. Ensuring that you have a clean chain of title is vital to every film venture, short or feature, doc or narrative.

Cast/Crew Deals. Everyone working on the project from the lead actor to the production assistant is advised to have signed a written release to the production company. Sometimes these releases will be embedded in an long form deal memo (that also includes terms relating to payment, billing credit, publicity, etc.) and sometimes you will need nothing more than a one page release vesting all ownership of the cast/crew member’s creative contributions in the entity and releasing the production company from any personal claims arising from the use of the releasing party’s name, likeness and voice.

Location Release – Location releases should be secured on both public and private lands. These agreements include terms relating to the production company’s use of the property, including rights of access, alterations to the property, representations and warranties, insurance requirements and appropriate indemnification language.

Music – Music in films can take on many forms. If the production company creates new, original music, it will need to enter into a written agreement with the composer. If the production company uses existing music, then it will need a synchronization (or synch) license from the music publisher(s) and a master use license from the record company if it is using an existing recording.

Movie Set

So what are you waiting for? Get started on your short film - and let me know how it goes!!!

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