Congratulations! You have been given an entertainment contract. Whether, it’s because a producer is optioning your new script, a record company has given you a 7-album deal, or a network is signing you up for a pilot (and six seasons of a series if the pilot is picked up), you have questions. You are looking at this (possibly very thick) contract and wondering, “what am I supposed to do now?”
The first question you are asking yourself is maybe, “Do I need a lawyer to look at this?” Well, if you’re doing a small part on a television show, maybe not. But, if this is a long-term agreement, or you are selling that screenplay that represents two years of hard work, then yeah, it is probably a good idea to have an attorney review it. Even if you think you can’t afford an attorney, try to find a way. An attorney may be able to get you some more money up front so the work may not end up costing you anything out of pocket. And a good attorney will almost certainly find things in the contract that could cost you a lot in the long run.
If you already know that you need an attorney to review the agreement, then what do you do. Do you just hand it over to the lawyer and let her do her magic? No. For the lawyer to give you the best representation, you need to do your work as well. The main thing you must do, even before you give it to the lawyer is to read it yourself, from top to bottom. While your reading, make notes (if you have it in Word, then just add comments directly to the document). Here are some things to look for in the agreement when you review it.
First, does the agreement accurately reflect the terms of the deal? If a producer promised you that he would pay you $250,000 for your screenplay, is that what it says? Does the contract accurately reflect the time period that was agreed upon? Many times, between the producer making the deal and her lawyer drafting the contract, things are missed or left out. Sometimes it’s intentional, but most times it’s not. It’s up to you to check and make sure that everything that was discussed made its way into the agreement. Your lawyer is often coming to the deal after the main terms have been discussed so she doesn’t know whether you and the producer agreed on a certain item. You need to make a list of what you think should be in the agreement and double check that it’s all there. Because once that contract is signed, anything not included will not be part of the agreement.
Second, are there provisions in there that you want to change? Besides asking for more money (always high on everyone’s wish list), are there other terms that you don’t want or can’t abide by? Mark them and ask your attorney about what can be done. Sometimes, especially in acting and directing agreements, the contract will have dates listed on which you will be available. But if you already have professional conflicts on those dates, you need to let your lawyer know so this can be addressed early on and see if the schedule can be changed. Other times, the producer may include provisions that seem much more burdensome than you want to agree to (oh, you don’t want to give up your first-born child if they give you the role?). If you feel the agreement is asking too much, be sure to let your attorney know. Producers may not agree to all your requests, but it never hurts to ask. And the lawyer will not automatically fight with the producer about each provision without you letting him know where the problems are. Sometimes, you need to pick your battles.
Third, are there provisions in the agreement that you just don’t understand. If so, highlight them and discuss them with your attorney. This agreement lists obligations that you are bound to do or not do. It’s important that you understand them. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to admit that you don’t understand certain provisions. I wouldn’t have understood many parts of a contract before I went to law school. Understanding the provisions and why they are included, will help you throughout your career because you will know what to do if they are included and whether you should fight to have them changed or excluded.
Finally, are there provisions in the agreement that don’t seem to make any sense or apply to your contract. Lawyers drafting these agreements almost always are working from previous contracts. It is VERY common that when redoing the contract for you, they will leave in a provision that has absolutely nothing to do with your situation. Or they will forget to change the name of the project all the way through. When you see something like that, just flag it so your lawyer can make the change.
Working with a lawyer is very much a two-way street. You don’t just want to hand the contract to them and leave them guessing as to where the real problems are. Follow these steps, and the contract negotiations will go much smoother and with a better chance of getting what you want.