Roll the Credits: Southwestern's Entertainment Production Practicum Helps Bring Indies from Dreams to Screens
Anyone who sits through all the credits that roll at the end of a movie can see that it takes many people to produce one film. It also takes a lot of money, which presents an especially daunting challenge to independent filmmakers, who have to face a wide array of legal issues on restrictive budgets.
Everything from securing permits to music clearance rights to protecting themselves from potential law suits can add up to exorbitant legal fees. In this do-it-yourself era of filmmaking, where a fledging artist might distribute a film through any number of channels, many filmmakers are unaware of the legal pitfalls they can face.
Enter Southwestern. In an effort to give law students practical experience in the legal production aspects of filmmaking while providing a way for auteurs to save tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, Southwestern's Donald E. Biederman Entertainment and Media Law Institute established an Entertainment Production Practicum, which pairs law students with independent film companies and individual filmmakers.
During its first semester of operation in Spring 2013, students worked on several projects and got to see their names on the big screen when "The Bet," written by Annie J. Dahlgren and directed by Finola Hughes, premiered in Santa Barbara.
"In addition to providing a fabulous service to independent filmmakers, our students are gaining invaluable experience working with real clients with real issues and problems - learning to problem solve and get things done."-Professor Steve Krone
Students participating in the practicum provide hands-on legal counsel to these filmmakers. "We really were able to work on a variety of different contracts and issues because we got to experience the film from the beginning all the way through principal photography," said Jennifer McNamara, who took the practicum course during her final semester of law school. She primarily assisted with the film "Such Good People," but emphasized that everyone in the course helped a bit with each of the practicum's five film projects.
The practicum is led by Biederman Institute Director and Professor Steven Krone, who was the former President and Chief Operating Officer of Village Roadshow Pictures Entertainment. He said, "In addition to providing a fabulous service to independent filmmakers, our students are gaining invaluable experience working with real clients with real issues and problems - learning to problem solve and get things done."
Professor Jay Gendron, who spent more than two decades as a legal and business affairs executive at Warner Bros. television before joining Southwestern's faculty in 2012, co-teaches the practicum. "We handpick students for the class," he said. "We are not afraid to let them learn and perform nitty-gritty work on difficult issues."
Students in the practicum learn a variety of essential entertainment lawyering skills including drafting or working on agreements for location, media consultants, work made for hire, clearance memos, music, confidentiality, clip licenses and crew deal memos.
"[The professors'] knowledge and real-world experience was unparalleled compared to any other program that I have heard of like this. Also, it was great to gain practical experience for what I hope to someday be my career. It was fun seeing my name in the credits of an actual movie, too!"-Cole Loveall, Practicum Student
Practicum student Angélica D. Mérida primarily handled music questions, helping to create a composer agreement as well as a simple hybrid master/synch license for a movie called "Redwood Highway." She researched royalties' structures, buy-out provisions, crew agreements, talent releases, clip use licenses, and fair use application for "An Intimate Dance." She drafted complex composer and score agreements and master and synch use licenses, as well as crew deal memos, and assisted others in drafting a location agreement and translations license and advised the client on the necessary steps to owning and publishing music made for the film for "Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf."
"I learned about client relations, teamwork and trust building, and gained a lot of drafting knowledge," Mérida said. "The practicum gave me the forum in which to exercise my skills without fear because I had my team and professors' support."
Another practicum student, Bryan Weiser, relished the challenge. "I would say that the most important skill I learned in the practicum was resourcefulness," he said. "The professors really gave us an opportunity to figure things out on our own. Often times there would be a situation where a template was not readily available. We would need to ask the group if anyone had something similar at their externship or job, or knew a friend that did that sort of work. We would always find a way to get it done."
Also, it is just kind of awesome to get to work with a talented film maker such as Susan Youssef, the writer, director and producer of "Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf." Although she lives in Amsterdam, she happily got on Skype at 2 a.m. (her time) to communicate with practicum students in Los Angeles. "She was extremely talented and passionate about her projects," Weiser said. "It is not every day that you get to work so closely with a director whose film just made it into Cannes [Film Festival]."
"Since we were dealing with such a low budget, the money we didn't have to spend on legal services enabled us to spend that money on the production. So, in a very real sense Southwestern Law School made our movie a better movie."-David Michael Barrett, Filmmaker
This is Youssef's first feature film set in the United States. In the current indie film climate, if a legal error made as early as in the development or pre-production stages, it can affect the afterlife of a film in distribution," Youssef said. "I came to the Entertainment Practicum to ensure the livelihood of my film, and to be completely aware of our film team's actions and consequences."
Cole Loveall most enjoyed working with Professors Krone and Gendron. "Their knowledge and real-world experience was unparalleled compared to any other program that I have heard of like this," he said. Also, it was great to gain practical experience for what I hope to someday be my career. It was fun seeing my name in the credits of an actual movie, too!"
Professor Gendron said the Entertainment Production Practicum is a win-win for Southwestern students and filmmakers. "I can't overemphasize how students took the ball and ran with it. They checked with us, but they took the initiative," he explained. "Most of them thought this is the coolest class, because it's real. It's not 'someday you may run into this,' someday was today... You can also tell our clients are thrilled to have this invaluable resource, that enables them to save $50K on legal affairs matters by having the class take care of it. They have been incredibly thankful and grateful for our services."
One of the filmmakers, David Michael Barrett, concurred. He wrote "Such Good People," described as a gay take on an old school Hollywood screwball comedy. "We are a SAG Ultra Low Budget film, and as such, saving money on legal feels helped our movie immeasurably," he explained. "Plus, working with Professors Steve Krone and Jay Gendron - and all their students - was a fantastic experience. Aside from all the obvious importance and significance of solid legal advice, there is another more practical advantage to working with Southwestern. It was so much more than just a cost saving measure. Filmmaking is expensive. Raising money is impossible. Since we were dealing with such a low budget, the money we didn't have to spend on legal services enabled us to spend that money on the production. So, in a very real sense Southwestern Law School made our movie a better movie."