Sometimes, people want to know how they can videotape in a public place, or adapt a story or a song or a commercial film to make a new movie. Sometimes, they are looking for an agent or contacts to help them distribute their production. This is where an entertainment attorney steps in. Choosing an appropriate entertainment attorney seems like a simple task, but identifying which entertainment lawyer is most suitable for a particular client depends on the legal advice or work that the client needs and—of course—the background and experience of the lawyer.

What do entertainment attorneys do?

Entertainment lawyers are often generalists in the field of entertainment law, which requires them to know a lot of legal subjects. They can give you advice and recommendations about:

Entertainment attorneys also work with actors’ agents for contracts regarding upcoming projects. They negotiate with the agent and producer for the actor’s compensation. Some entertainment attorneys are also agents, managers or publicists. Talent agents and entertainment attorneys often work together on behalf of their clients. They secure talent releases and advise their clients on jobs and contracts. An entertainment attorney can serve as a liaison between the talent and other professionals, from agents and tax preparers to networks and venues.  

Entertainment attorneys can also facilitate distribution deals for entertainment projects. They draft development and production contracts with writing, directing, acting and recording talent. They work on financing agreements for sponsorships, bank loans, co-production investments, grants and other types of investments. They prepare agreements for appearance releases, location releases, and licenses. They may also help clients join unions, guilds, and other professional associations if needed. On the other hand, these attorneys may work directly for professional organizations to perform duties they may desire.

They most often deal with transactions—negotiating and drafting contracts. Some, however, are litigators, which is useful when issues cannot be resolved until two or more parties go to court.

Clients hire entertainment attorneys for specific purposes, such as negotiating or renegotiating contracts, researching relevant case law, determining who owns parts of collaborative intellectual property, initiating legal action against people who have stolen intellectual property or breached contracts or helping clients secure distribution rights for creative properties.

Where to find an entertainment attorney

The location of the entertainment industry—Los Angeles for film, television, and music; New York for music, publishing, and theater; and Nashville for music—dictates that most professionals in the entertainment industry work in those cities, which have the greatest concentration of law firms that specialize in entertainment law.

Education

Like other attorneys, an entertainment attorney spends three years earning a law degree after receiving a bachelor’s degree. But an entertainment attorney chooses to focus on entertainment, most often graduating from a law school that offers a specialization in entertainment law. Some of the top schools are the University of California at Los Angeles, University of Southern California, Stanford University and New York University.

Once a person graduates from a law school, they can represent clients in the entertainment industry without requiring additional training or certification. But besides a general legal education, work experience is essential to attain competence in this field. The more situations an attorney observes or participates in, the better and more well-rounded the attorney becomes. Discovering where an attorney went to school is easy to do by consulting the Martindale-Hubbell lawyer directory at www.martindale.com.

Experience counts

After finishing school, an entertainment lawyer usually works for a law firm specializing in entertainment law. 

Networking is one of the most important skills for entertainment lawyers. They should have connections in the film or music industries so they can secure the best contracts for their clients. Other types of lawyers may focus on marketing to potential clients. Draft contracts for a client, review contracts from managers, publicists, record labels, film studios and others to make sure they’re legal and fair to the client, and then negotiate those contracts.

A good entertainment attorney maintains relationships with studios or record labels, and is aware of who is influential and what deals are being made in the industry. Having strong contacts can help an attorney get a deal done quickly, while knowledge of what’s being offered elsewhere can help the attorney get the best deal for a client.

The most competent entertainment attorneys help clients that are new to the industry understand how the business works, including which types of contracts to choose, how to identify pitfalls in business deals, what performing rights they have. They also guide the client on where to find a manager, agent, accountant or other business contacts. They act as general counsel for established artists, helping with marketing and merchandising deals, as well as real estate transactions and tax issues.

Also, they help artists secure the rights to use music that other artists have written, complying with copyright laws. This last activity can also be performed by other lawyers including but not limited to intellectual property or copyright attorneys.

Steps to take when looking for an entertainment attorney

As a moviemaker, the first step you will want to take before you seek an entertainment attorney is to determine what legal help you need. For example, do you want to protect your idea for a script or treatment? Do you want to adapt someone else’s novel or story or life story and create a movie based on that story? Do you want to hire actors? Do you need to join the Screen Actors Guild (SAC) or the Writers Guild of America (WGA) or another union?

Once you determine the legal services you need, you should investigate potential lawyers. One place to look is a lawyer directory. The Martindale-Hubbell directory has an on-line, searchable database that summarizes each lawyer’s education, areas of concentration, experience, and rating by other lawyers. The website is www.martindale.com.

You don’t have to physically visit or meet face-to-face with an attorney now that online communication is the new normal. Call or email to schedule a short introductory meeting with more than one attorney, so you can evaluate the attorney’s education and experience, and determine whether the two of you are compatible. This is an opportunity to get answers to questions you have about the attorney and the law practice. I suggest you write your questions in advance, so you can use it as a checklist as the interview progresses.

After interviewing a few attorneys, you can decide on the one you would like to work with. Call that attorney back and be ready to sign the retainer agreement to get started. Expect to spend between $250 and $500 per hour once the attorney begins to work for you. Finally, listen to the advice you get and, of course, take the advice you pay for.

Mark Levy
Mark Levy has been contributing articles to Videomaker magazine since 1988. He is past president of the Amateur Movie Makers Association and has won awards internationally for his short films and videos. He practices intellectual property law (patents, trademarks, and copyrights) in Evergreen, Colorado. Roman Zelichenko is Founder & CEO @ LaborLess. Entrepreneur. Lawyer. Writer. Improviser. Climber. Snowboarder. Eater. Traveler.

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