Making a Film? See Why YOU Need a Lawyer: DIFF 2015 Legal Panel | 2015 Dallas International Film Festival—April 9-19

Making a Film? See Why YOU Need a Lawyer: DIFF 2015 Legal Panel

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By Sam Iannuzzi
DIFF Writer

If the filmmakers who attended the Dallas International Film Festival Legal Panel Discussion: “Why Do I Need A Lawyer,” at the Nasher Sculpture Center, didn’t know why before the event, they certainly discovered a multitude of reasons why after the nearly 90-minute discussion and question and answer session.

Moderated by local Attorney Danica L. Mathes, the panel enlightened the audience on many potential trouble spots for prospective artists looking to develop, produce, market, finance and, hopefully, sell their work.
The esteemed panel of experts included entertainment lawyers Sally Helppie and Lawrence Waks as swell as Evan Fitzmaurice, the former Director of the Texas Film Commission.

Mathes kicked things off with the most basic scenario of a prospective filmmaker wanting to take a book and make it into a movie. Why hire a lawyer?

“Where to begin?” said Helppie. “Obviously, whoever wrote the book has rights. The publisher probably has rights to the book. You can’t just take a book and turn it into a movie. If you don’t have the money you have to figure out how to get the money so there are securities laws that likely come into play. And then, you obviously have to have knowledge about production, hiring people and production contracts.”

Why does a prospective filmmaker need a lawyer? It took less than ten minutes to name the following reasons: material rights, securities laws for financing, production, production contracts, author or author’s estate rights, publisher rights, copyright, intellectual property and proper securing of the rights.

The panel made it clear that there is a difference between having an idea and producing material that an artist can get copyrighted. In order to obtain a copyright, the material must be fixed in a tangible form like a manuscript or a treatment. Everyone emphasized obtaining the copyright through proper channels as opposed to using the “common law” approach of sealing material in an envelope and mailing it to yourself so you have a dated, unopened version of your work.

“Copyright registration is the cheapest form ($35-50) of intellectual property protection in the United States of America,” said Waks.

Fitzmaurice also made sure to point out that documentary filmmakers do not get a pass. There are still clearance issues on some of the material. Some documentaries fall under the term “fair us,” but documentary filmmakers may need a lawyer to prove their treatment falls under the fair use doctrine, which can be difficult. Fair use also covers material used for educational purposes or to review the work.

Once a prospective filmmaker gets the rights and copyright issues hammered out, there’s the issue of raising money to fund the project. This is where projects get the attention of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

The legal experts covered several methods of raising capital and the legal liabilities of each, including a popular method called crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is basically raising money from a large number of people, most commonly through the internet or social media. While it can be profitable and effective, crowdfunding does not escape the scrutiny of the SEC, which is another reason to seek legal counsel for a project.

“All the phases (of a project) are important but when it comes to raising money and distribution, that’s the time to make sure your documents are rock solid because you don’t want to have a dispute down the road,” cautions Fitzmaurice.

Lawyers can be costly, most charge by the hour. There are a few pro bono web sites but free legal advice is not easy to come by.

“By meeting with a lawyer early on in the process, you can get a better idea of what things will cost,” advises Mathes. “That way you can at least put the cost in your budget and find out what kinds of things you can do on your own. There’s a lot to know and a lot of potential risk.”

Mathes is an ardent supporter of the Dallas International Film Festival and is a regular panel discussion moderator and organizer. “Part of the mission of the Dallas Film Society and the Film Festival is to educate people, especially with legal issues.”

With apologies to Abraham Lincoln—filmmakers who try to be their own lawyers, have fools for clients.




L.M. Kit Carson (Posthumously)
Lone Star State legend and influential writer, actor and producer Carson first gained recognition as creator of the mockumentary, DAVID HOLZMAN’s DIARY (1968), and co-wrote PARIS, TEXAS (1984).

Blythe Danner
Danner is well regarded for her roles in films such as MEET THE PARENTS and THE GREAT SANTINI. The Emmy-winning and Golden Globe-nominated actress is alos know for her work on television shows such as Will & Grace and Huff.

John Landis
A director for more than 40 years, Landis' films include NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE (1980), THE BLUES BROTHERS (1978) and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981).

Learn more about the honorees

Presented by REEL FX

Phil Lord and Chris Miller
are the prolific writing and directing duo behind some of today’s most successful comedy films including, THE LEGO MOVIE, 21 & 22 JUMP STREET and CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS.

Learn more about the honorees


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