You’ve just capped off a fantastic meeting with a key decision-maker at a production company or studio. And you killed it. They loved meeting you and loved what you did. These are the types of interactions you’ve been preparing for since you began. You know the ones you hear about from your peers, at film festivals, at parties in the hills, and the produce section of your local Gelson’s.
It’s hard not to let the dream factory in your mind take you to the red carpet premiere of your film or series. But let’s slow down for a minute. Don’t write your Oscar speech just yet.
You need someone to look out for you and your interests who knows the entertainment industry. It’s crucial to first establish a strong foundation to protect your interests. That means it's time to find an entertainment attorney. What do entertainment attorneys do, and where and when should you find one?
For some practical insight, Wrapbook spoke with seasoned entertainment attorney Peter Kaufman of Kaufman Adbel-Aal LLP. With over 25 years experience representing film and television clients, Peter shed light on the importance of having a legal ally in a creative's career journey.
Quotes have been edited for clarity and brevity.
There’s an expression that goes: The best time to build a roof is when it is not raining. Our first instinct might be to wait until a deal is presented to you before seeking legal counsel. You don’t want to bother anyone, or incur any costs before you have to, right?
“ … Establish a relationship with an entertainment attorney is sooner rather than later. I think that there's always the danger [in] hiring an entertainment lawyer too late.”
This can start with a conversation about what you’re doing in the business. Maybe you need a film attorney to walk you through a potential movie deal.
“I’m doing such and such in the business right now. I am looking for representation. I don’t think I need you right now. But tell me if I’m wrong.”
This allows you to have someone in place so you can quickly proceed to next steps. Ask them when they feel it is the right time.
“That’s an easy, early way to establish trust and a relationship.”
Careers in the entertainment industry are built on relationships. This applies not only to your relationships with producers, actors, and directors, but especially to someone as important as your entertainment attorney who is a foundational part of your team.
It’s not just looking at resumes or online profiles. Like most things in the entertainment business, referrals play a major part.
Connect with other working professionals. Do they have a film attorney? If so, ask for referrals and recommendations. Look up professionals on industry websites and see who is listed as their entertainment attorney.
“Do your due diligence research… Get some referrals, get some understanding of what do entertainment attorneys do. If all you see that they've done is a lot of music label deals, it's gonna be very difficult to expect that same lawyer to represent you on a film deal.”
One of the first questions that may come to mind is what type of entertainment attorney is right for me? A film attorney, music attorney, finance?
Every deal is different with different requirements. You wouldn’t want a film attorney doing a music label deal. Just like each position in film and TV has its own skill set, each subset of entertainment law has its own set of considerations.
“As goes the entertainment business as a whole, the same goes for representation. There are lawyers and agents and managers who have specialties in music, lawyers who just do financing for movies, representing banks, and that kind of thing. [Then] there are lawyers who are generalists.”
Your questions will help frame what subset of entertainment attorneys is right for you.
Part of finding and working with an entertainment attorney includes considering the cost. How much do you pay?
Entertainment attorneys often structure their fees one of two ways.
The first is an hourly rate, common among many other types of attorneys. This is the “billable hours” you may sometimes hear about. It can be hundreds of dollars per hour and can apply to working on your deal, researching, answering questions, etc.
The second is as a percentage of a negotiated deal. This is similar to how an agent or a manager might take a percentage. It’s typically 5% of the money to be paid to the client.
“There's obviously a cost factor involved. Very often you hear about attorneys working on a percentage… basis. And that's true, many attorneys do. But that's based on the assumption that they are involved on a career-wide basis as opposed to whatever deal you're hiring them for… That there is clearly money coming in to pay for their time [in the future].”
It’s important to keep these fee structures in mind when meeting with prospective entertainment attorneys. This requires a sense of self-awareness on your part.
“Lawyers have an expectation that they're going to get their fees fairly immediately, as opposed to investing in someone they believe in… The reason for that is cost of time.”
Where are you in your career? Is this a one-off? Do you need a film attorney for just this one project? Is the level of work you’re being offered consistent and viable? Everyone’s financial position and career trajectory is different. Knowing yours will help you make the best decision for yourself.
In the film Jerry Maguire, Bob Sugar, the foil to the title character says the line "Show friends, not show business." The entertainment business is built on relationships, often very personal ones. These can be emotional connections.
Is having an emotional connection a requirement for your entertainment attorney? Do you need to be friends? Maybe you want to have social activities with your film attorneys?
Peter had this to say,
“… The assumption is that somehow you need an emotional connection with your representation. There are a number of exceptional film attorneys out there who aren't particularly good at the warm and fuzzy stuff. That's just not their personality.
I think there's a necessary part of working in a creative business where you want to be able to be emotionally connected, in some way, to the people representing you. But they don't have to be your friends. What you want is someone who is empowered to be your advocate.”
Entertainment attorneys work for you. It can be easy to forget that. At its core, this is a business relationship. You’re not paying them their 5% to be your friend.
In a lot of ways they are your shield. They allow you to maintain the creative dynamics with people you are working with without it deteriorating because of business considerations. To keep it business, not personal.
Ultimately, the answer to this question is entirely up to you. Do you need to be friends with your entertainment attorneys?
The moment is finally here. The deal is on the table. You have your film attorney. It’s time to sign on the dotted line, right?
When people ask, what do entertainment attorneys do, this is probably the most important thing. You have to ask a prospective entertainment attorney how they negotiate and make the deal(s) on your behalf.
For someone starting out building their team and approaching a deal you have to understand what leverage you may or may not have. Peter explains this further.
“... You as a creative have to be a business person. And you have to look at this as a business transaction.”
While we as creatives thrive in using our imagination as part of our work, there comes a time when we have to come back to the reality of the situation, which is the transaction itself.
“... The lawyer has to explain to you how this transaction translates into the work, or how it affects the work that they're being hired to do."
Most crucially, Peter advises,
“... Give your entertainment lawyer a road map for where and how you want this deal to create momentum from the deal you want to close now to other opportunities down the road.”
Peter emphasizes the importance of viewing deals as business transactions, understanding your leverage, and making informed decisions to foster a positive trajectory for future opportunities.
“… As a creative, it is imperative that you approach the deal as an entrepreneur and the deal itself as a business transaction as much as you consider the creative stakes regardless for the project in play. Anything less than that may put your art and your business at risk.”
“Regardless of your leverage on deal, you should feel empowered and in control to take the deal, continue to negotiate or, failing that, to walk away. It’s not about ego, it’s about whether a given deal is good business for you and for your work.”
“… I think if you can find a way that says, ‘Look, I understand. And I've sat with my representation, and I've looked at it myself. And I think this is something I should do.’ Notwithstanding the terms that I don't particularly like, that's empowering. And that's where you want to be.”
You have to understand how this fits with your overall plan. How a deal creates momentum for the next deal, if at all. This is part of the conversation you will have with your entertainment attorneys.
They can help shape your mindset on how to view the deal that’s right in front of you based on your needs and what your goals are in this business. Like so many people say, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Many thanks to Peter Kauffman for sharing his advice and experience with us on what entertainment attorneys do and how to work with one.
As you can see there are several considerations for deciding who you want working with you as your entertainment attorneys. Remember, who you work with in this business has a direct impact on your career.
Want to know more about entertainment attorneys? Check out the 20 most frequently asked questions about them.
At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice. You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.