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Get Me Legal! The Benefits of Production Counsel

Why counsel is important, and how to get the most from your investment.

Photo by Scott Graham / Unsplash

Production interfaces with the legal in several different and significant ways, such as contracts and intellectual property. Without proper legal guidance producers can encounter challenges that could negatively impact production schedules and costs.  

We talked to Michael A. Tenzer, Esq., head of the Law Offices of Michael Tenzer, P.C., along with his partner, Aline Grunwald, about how producers should be working with counsel.

Contracts: Producers should review contracts with crew members, actors, and writers to avoid disputes over compensation, rights, and responsibilities. To avoid misunderstandings, entertainment lawyers ensure that contracts are sound and accurately represent the production’s goals. Negotiation, with assistance from an entertainment lawyer, results in more favorable contracts and agreements for the production.

Intellectual Property Rights: To avoid legal battles, producers should protect the intellectual property associated with their production, including copyrights and trademarks. This protects the production from potential infringement claims. Similarly, production counsel can assist with trademark and copyright registrations, ensuring the producer has control over the production’s distribution.

Clearances, Location, and Licensing: Infringement claims can be avoided by obtaining the necessary permits and licenses for filming locations, music, stock footage, branded material in shots, and other copyrighted materials. Entertainment lawyers help producers secure the correct permissions for any licensed materials used in the production. Knowing where and when the production will end up will help determine what rights are needed for long term uses.

Legal and Labor Compliance: Legal assistance is necessary to protect production from issues related to defamation and invasion of privacy. Lawyers help a producer stay on top of industry regulations and legal requirements to keep the production in agreement with the law. While the laws are important, so is making sure the production stays on the right side of the applicable labor unions. You can read the latest about what's going on with the unions and guilds here.

According to Tenzer, the most important thing for producers to understand is to view the counsel as part of the team, not a last resort, in order to get the most value:

"Your production counsel is kind of a jack of all trades. An advisor. But if you don't include me early enough in decisions or questions or plans, I can't help give you guidance.... If a producer just treats me like a necessary evil and doesn't include me or let me know anything until the absolute last minute with the least amount of information, you kind of get that back in return. But if you're collaborative and you include counsel and you treat them like part of the team, then you get a real team effort from that.

Any experienced producer will tell you stories about how the "lawyers" saved their production. Yes, it may increase costs, complexity, and introduces the potential for delay, but we go back to the old adage: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." And Tenzer notes that most of his deals are a flat fee anyway.

So bring in a production counsel that fits your style, and consult them early and often.