If you’re producing an independent film for the first time, then it’s vital that you understand the legal issues involved. Meeting legal requirements is just as important as raising money for your production, and if you don’t do it properly, then you could end up with much higher costs.
The good news is that whilst you may need experts to help with some of the process, understanding basic legal issues is quite possible for a layperson. You just need to know where to focus your attention.
Health and safety
A film set is a place of work, and like any other, it falls under the regulatory control of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). It is your responsibility to make sure that all people working on the set – cast and crew alike – abide by the rules designed to protect them.
You will need to be aware of possible safety risks and make sure that everybody is properly trained to stay safe. This covers everything from bringing in professional stunt advisors to pointing out where the fire exits are. Giving due consideration to health and safety is essential to meeting the terms of production insurance. The HSE can provide a wealth of free advice
Filming in a location that you don’t actually own generally requires permission. Often, this is given for free, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t be pursued if you go ahead and shoot without obtaining it first. What some first-time producers don’t realise is that the need for permission applies not just to indoor locations but also to outdoor ones – you could potentially get in trouble in relation to a building in the background of your film.
Talk to your local industry bodies for advice on who to contact about different locations. Many also keep lists of places where it’s easy to get permission to shoot for free, and they can save you time on scouting by making useful suggestions once you describe what you’re looking for.
No matter what arrangements that you have with your cast and crew, even if they are volunteers on a microbudget project, you will need to draw up contracts to make sure that everybody’s interests are protected. In the case of volunteers, these usually involve profit share agreements.
If you are paying your team, then you will need to ensure that you can provide at least the minimum wage and meet your tax obligations as an employer. Contracts may also cover other issues such as shares in any profit from merchandising. If there are children under the age of 16 in your cast, then a parent or guardian will need to sign their contracts, and Child Performance Certificates will be needed.
Copyright and intellectual property law can crop up in all sorts of places in a film production, from ensuring that the script that you’re working from is original (or, if not, that permissions have been obtained) to accessing music for your soundtrack, providing set photos to publicity outlets and protecting the rights of members of the public who may be visible in your footage.
To be confident that you get all this right, it’s advisable to consult a legal expert such as Colin Nasir, who has published on related matters in entertainment law. Based in London, New York and Papua New Guinea, he specialises in issues relating to file sharing and illegal downloading, so he can also advise on how to protect your copyright when your film is complete.
If you’re filming in locations abroad, then you may face a number of additional legal issues. In some countries, scripts need to be vetted and approved by the authorities before shooting can commence.
You may face restrictions on what cast members are allowed to wear or what type of scenes that you can shoot in the proximity of famous buildings, especially religious buildings.
It’s always a good idea to get in touch with the local regulator and government department responsible for film when you first consider an overseas location.
This can often be combined with investigating potential sources of funding and tax incentives. Before committing to a location, you will need to check that every essential person whom you plan to send there can meet the visa requirements.
The sooner that you start tackling these legal issues, the less likely that you are to run into difficulties during shooting or after your film’s release.
Although these issues are mostly a matter of sorting out paperwork and making sure that rules are adhered to, they can be time-consuming.
However, dotting each “i” and crossing each “t” can have positive effects, enhancing your reputation and making the big festivals and distributors much more willing to take up your work.