When you make a film, you need paperwork. And I’m going to share seven essential film documents that every filmmaker needs before completing production. And before we go further, I get it. Paperwork is not something every filmmaker thinks about, but ignoring your paperwork is the difference between:
- I made a movie once, you cannot see it anywhere!
- My movie has a wide release this spring! Go see it!”
Even if you’re working with friends and family, you still need paperwork… Or you won’t get distribution.
7 Essential Film Documents Every Filmmaker Needs
To keep this process simple, I have compiled a list of eight essential film documents that you will want in order to complete production on your movie. Keep in mind that each production is different. So you will absolutely want to speak with a qualified legal professional before going into any production. More on this later…
1. Essential Film Documents: Screenplay Ownership Documentation
There are two crucial film documents you need to protect your screenplay: registration forms from the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) and the United States Copyright Office. Once you’ve completed your screenplay, you register it with the WGA. The reason for this is simple. This is proof YOU are the author who completed said screenplay on this date. This can either be done for the finished draft, or each draft to play it safe. It’s only $20.
Following WGA registration, visit the U.S. Copyright Office Website, make an account, and register your screenplay with them. This certificate (which takes almost a year to process but is in effect immediately) will show screenplay ownership. It’s more expensive ($35 for single author and not work for hire, and $55 for all others) but bulletproof for the screenplay. Once you complete your film, you HAVE TO register the film with U.S. Copyright Office to validate your ownership of the film.
2.Essential Film Documents: Protect Yourself
For this one, you need a qualified attorney. But in short, when you set up a film project – It’s a well known best practice to put your film in a corporate entity. Most filmmakers here in the US create a limited liability company. But your country or state may have a different type of entity… That said, the goal here is to separate your film business from your personal life. Do some research on this and please contact a lawyer.
3. Essential Film Documents: Insure the Production
For this one, talk to a licensed insurance agent. But basically, film production insurance and workers compensation is set up to cover you, your equipment, your crew, your employees, your footage and the locations you use. This type of insurance can run high, but the majority of locations will not allow you to film without it. Who wants to deal with property damage or injury lawsuits from crew? For this one, talk to an insurance broker.
Secondly, you’ll want to talk with your insurance agent about Errors and Omissions Insurance (E&O). In a nutshell, Errors and Omissions Insurance covers you against third party claims. For example, lets say something shows up on the screen that you didn’t plan for or get a release. You’ll want to be covered. Depending on the deal, some distributors offer their own Errors and Omissions have an umbrella policy you would be put on. And some want you to find E&O on your own.
4. Essential Film Documents: Location Forms
Once you’re insured, you may now start exploring possible shooting locations for your film. Location releases are contracts you will need when getting permission to shoot at most locations. These film documents have to contain the following information: That you, an insured entity, have permission to shoot on x-amount of days, for a specific time, and either are allowed or are not allowed to use the location logos, name of the company or any identifying characteristics in your film.
5. Essential Film Documents: Actor Release Forms
Getting actor release forms is the most straightforward of your film documents. This gives you the necessary right to show the actor’s name and face on screen. Without these film documents, you CANNOT legally show any likeness of your actors in your film. Each cast member must sign one, and anyone under 18 must have a parent or guardian fill out the form for them.
6. Essential Film Documents: Crew Contracts
This applies to paid cast as well. You need a legally-binding way to hold everyone accountable. Contracts protect you if your crew doesn’t show up or doesn’t perform well, and protects your crew member from not getting paid. It will put everyone’s mind at rest. Make sure your contract with your music, DP, and set photographer state that you may use what they created/shot.
You will also need a clause that allows you to use their name in the credits (a chain of title clause). What’s more? All contracts should include an actor release clause. Why? Because whether you use it in the special features of the blu-ray or for promotions, you will have behind the scenes, pictures and footage and you never know whose face will show up.
7. Essential Film Documents: Music Ownership
Using licensed music without permission is a typical reason a distributor may turn away. They need a legal film document that states: (a) you own the music within your film, (b) you have permission from the music’s creator to use it, or (c) proof the music is public domain. Be up front with your composer or friend’s band and get this decided and signed before they give you their music. Keep in mind that music is complicated. There are performance rights and publishing rights. Again… Talk to an attorney!
Out of all the film documents I mentioned, a press kit is the last of the film documents you’ll need to finish your film. Simply put, a press kit is a portfolio used to market your film. Most festivals require one and any film market and distributor will too. If you’ve followed my check list, your actors and crew should already be covered in regards to using them in your marketing. The following is a list of items you’ll generally need to complete your press kit:
- Resumes and headshots from your actors and key crew.
- Make sure whoever creates marketing materials agrees to provide the RAW files for your distributor.
- Create a filmography and a director’s vision for the film. Generally, the director will be the only one asked to provide one and what the director says about the film can be utilized in interviews, ads, and the like.
When I began making my first feature, I did not do all of the administrative paperwork. This was NOT smart, as I had to spend a few months finding people in order to get release forms, chain of title, and everything else. Take it from me, just get the above film documents completed ASAP and then go onto more fun aspects of filmmaking like making your movie!
Jimmy Kelly is a filmmaker from Long Island, NY best known for the feature film IN CRITICAL CONDITION. As a director, writer, and producer, Jimmy Kelly’s credits include commercials, short films, and IN CRITICAL CONDITION. He is the President & CEO of Fight On Entertainment, has received accolades from numerous festivals and is currently working on a number of shorts and two features in development.