Q: A friend is self-financing and producing a micro-budget script that she wrote. She has asked me to help as an Associate Producer. It seems like a Work for Hire situation, but there’s no money for salaries. What’s the best way to formalize such an agreement?
A: As a basic rule in life, never get involved with any endeavor that can be described in a sentence that includes, in any order, the words “friend,” “self-financing,” and “micro-budget.” If the basic rule applies, run. She can’t be that good of a friend. You didn’t say she’s your best friend, just a friend. A friend in LA, at most, means you met her once and she added you to her 1,500 (and growing) other “friends” on Facebook. But even assuming she’s really a “friend” as used to be defined by a dictionary, then keep in mind that the second best way to lose a friend is to work for free on a “micro-budget” production. (In case you’re wondering, the best way is to lend money to a friend to produce a “micro-budget” script.)
But if you’re itching to test these common sense axioms, if you’re in it for a life lesson, then here is how you should formalize the deal.
There is a small chance this movie is actually completed and generates some money. (And by a small chance I mean no chance.) I guess it could get into a festival and some desperate distributor on the brink of bankruptcy buys it, accidentally paying more for it than your friend invested in it. If this were to happen, then your friend would be making a profit off your selfless, hard labor, and you should participate in that profit. After all, labor is not an end in itself but just the grueling, unpleasant, and life-shortening means to a paycheck.
So the financial deal your friend should have with you (and for that matter with anyone else who might be helping her for free) is this. She should set up a contractual participation pool. The pool will consist of all revenues she generates from the movie that are left after the deduction of all expenses she spends on the movie. If anything is left, then the pool participants (like you) will receive a percentage of what’s left.
There are as many variations on this as there are “micro-budget” films that never make any money. For example, your friend may want to charge interest as part of her expenses, she may want to clarify that her expenses include not only the cost of production but also the costs of marketing and distribution (i.e., her drunken trip to the Santa Barbara Film Festival), etc. (There are numerous bells and whistles that I’m not describing, but unfortunately, the micro-budget doesn’t allow for it.) And, of course, there is always “The Producers” problem — with some exceptions, 100% of something is all of it — and your friend really needs to use a calculator (Google offers a free calculator; I thought I’d mention that given the “micro-budget” nature of the production).
Of course, you shouldn’t toil in anonymity. Credit is the most important thing in life after money and family (in that order). You should have your “associate producer” credit on screen and in the billing block of paid ads (what paid ads?!!). All of this comes with even more bells and whistles. On second thought, given the nature of this production, maybe you should demand contractually that not only is she not allowed to give you credit but your name cannot even be mentioned in the same paragraph with this movie. Your call.
This blog was originally published as part of Legal Ease, Film Independent’s weekly column on legal matters pertaining to the entertainment industry. To see other LEGAL EASE columns please click here.