Copyright, Chain-of-Title, and Making Sure You Can Actually Sell Your Movie

Most posts in the Production 101 series require a deep breath before diving into them, and this one is no different.

While copyright in the United States is technically awarded “at the moment of creation” of something, that really matters very little to the commercial world of  any financially meaningful means of media distribution.

An aside, none of this really matters if you’re not ever going to distribute commercially *and* won’t ever have a need for Errors and Omissions Insurance.  E&O in media specifically is an insurance against getting sued for not having properly cleared certain parts of your media.  Most specifically it applies to insuring against lawsuits from musicians, people appearing in your film, or other people who may claim your film was their idea.

You can only get insurance policies for this kind of coverage if you’ve properly done all the contracts and releases for your media, and the aforementioned elements (though some distributors will require you to go further in certain cases).

The very first item on the list if you ever go to apply for E&O, or to commercially show or distribute your work on any medium or large commercial network (cable, satellite, etc), will to prove you own the copyright for the property.  And not just you, but specifically, the corporate entity that owns the copyright with whom the potential distributor is doing a deal.  I’m assuming here you’ve got an LLC or other entity you’re already using to limit your own liabilities.

So, if you’re in the US, you go to, get the right forms, and fill it out, send it in first with a copy of your script.  Make sure you’ve assigned the copyrights themselves to the company you’ve set up.  This is as simple as typing up Blank Assignment of Copyright that says you assign the copyright of your “titled” piece to the “name of the company,” and date and sign it.  I’ve actually included a sample doc you’re welcome to use.

Then you also send in a description of the copyrighted media. Blank Copyright Description

And lastly, if you need to reassign the copyright to another entity or person for any reason over the life of the intellectual property, you can use: Blank Transfer of Copyright Agreement

These documents are going to at the top of the list for commercial exploitation of your media, and once you understand the principles behind them, it’s really not that complicated; though I’ll admit it’s a bit of a pain-in-the-butt.  I’ll follow this up in a couple of weeks with the other parts of satisfying the maze of requirements for delivering a film or media project to a commercial distributor that includes things like location, appearance, and materials releases, and music cue sheets.

Lastly, footnote: I am not a lawyer, and my posts shouldn’t be considered substitutes for professional legal advice, nor is it a solicitation to offer legal advice. Seek the advice of a licensed attorney in the appropriate jurisdiction before taking any action that may affect your rights.

Shot Lists, Shot Planning & Storyboards

Some years ago, I remember hearing that director Gary Ross had a shot list for the film Seabiscuit that was triple the length of the screenplay itself.  While it may be overkill (and then again, maybe not), it can’t be overstated enough that failing to plan is planning to fail.

In any visual medium, the foremost job of the leaders behind the project is to make sure that everyone working with you is clear on exactly what you’re all trying to create together.  You have to get your vision, out of your head and into the heads and hands of others on your team.

To return to the Gary Ross example, I remember his saying that his shot lists explained shots in emotional terms as well as general filmmaking terms.

Seabiscuit-exampleSo instead of just saying “Long shot,” he would say things like, “They’ve just lost their son, and feel utterly and absolutely alone in the world.  Their pain is so deep that they need that isolation, for now, and we need to respect their pain.

And this shot in the film reflects that.

So for directors and producers who feel like shot lists and storyboards might paint you into a particular shot, at the very least describing how you want people to feel at key moments in your media can be a great way to get your team on the same page with you.

Now, personally, I like to plan; I also believe that having a plan doesn’t mean you can’t deviate from the plan.  Having a plan means you have thought about the purpose behind each part of the plan, and have a firm foundation upon which to assess possible changes to your plan when you get your boots on the ground.

Changing your plan mid-game is fine, and can even drive better results than having stuck to your original plan.  But you and your team need a place to start.  Shot lists, and shot planning aids are a great way to do that.

Below are some old school templates I’ve used over the years, feel free to download them and use them for your own productions!

Blank Shot Planning List

Overhead Layout Template

Blank Storyboard Frames

I will also note, that since pre-visualization tools have gotten much, much more accessible (Sketchup, Blender, anyone?  Or Maya, or 3DS Max on the paid route), there’s no reason you can’t setup rough scenes in full 3d, and export stills or even animated sequences so your crew knows what you’re going for.

Make a plan, or plan to fail, it’s your choice:)

Location Scouting

Location scouting can be one of the most fun, and most futile parts of making media.

It can be fun in that it can take you to absolutely amazing places you would never otherwise get to see, and while you’re there for scouting there’s very little of the regular production pressure you have once you’ve got a fully operational production on premise.

It can also drive choices that can make or break your production.

Sometimes you fall in love with the look of a certain place, and the deal terms seem workable; but there’s no place to park your production vehicles, or crew vehicles.

Sometimes you fall in love with a place, only to realize that you’re in a historically significant building, and your grip & lighting crew tell you where they need to be able to mount lighting. You then say “OK,” not knowing that you’re going to be stuck with a bill that doesn’t just cover “repairing” whatever happened when they mounted their kit, but for a full “restoration” to original condition.  Something that should cost a few hundred dollars in spackle and paint is now a $10,000 bill for using “historically accurate” materials and labor to do the repair job.  It’s funny in the not funny kind of way.

At the end of the day, choosing a location for your film or video project there are 5 major points to consider:

  1. Look – does it fit the look you and your creative team are searching for with the least amount of modification?
  2. Accessibility – What’s the BIGGEST truck you’re going to have on site?  Will it fit down the driveway? Is there anywhere for it to park?
  3. Parking – Is there enough parking for your cast AND your crew on site? If not, where are the closest spaces that will support your cast/crew, and can you afford the time, personnel and vehicles to run shuttles?
  4. Permitting – What area is it in? Are there any permitting issues? What’s the lead time and cost for a permit? Filming restrictions on hours? Neighbor sign-off required?
  5. Potties – Seriously y’all – a house with two bathrooms isn’t going to cut it for a crew of 60.  Find space to bring in enough restroom capacity to suit the crew size.
  6. Power – If you’re bringing more than a few K of lighting, you need to have a plan for a generator. You’ll need a place to park it where it won’t be heard on set, and you’re lighting teams will need to know how far a cable run will be needed to get power into the location.

At any rate – I used to send some of my teams out with sheets I made up just for the folks who weren’t necessarily location managers (*ahem* – segment reality producers, I’m looking at you); but still had the responsibility of looking at and assessing locations for production.

Hopefully you’ll find it helpful in your productions:)

Blank Location Scout Sheet

It’s Not About the Money

It’s been said a million times the web over, that it’s not about the money; and yet somehow there’s always someone new popping up for whom it IS about the money.

At the same time, I’ve been learning a lot about Lean methodologies, and how they apply to startup and product life.  So I wondered if it might be useful to look at the lack of money as a problem, and apply the famous Five Why’s to solving for the root of the problem and see what results could be.  We’ll start with the classic phrasing of the macro-problem:

  1. I need more money.
  2. Because I need to buy “x” or “y” or “z”
  3. Because I need to have food, shelter, clothing, a Bentley, jewelry, etc
  4. Because I need
    • food, shelter, clothing to survive,
    • _______ goods, Bentley, jewelry, etc, to
      • feel better about myself
      • demonstrate my worth or superiority to others
      •  because it’s something I’m entitled to
    • to increase value for others (entrepreneur?)
  5. Because it will make me happy

I hope I’m not doing this wrong, but it feels to me like #5 right there gets to the heart of non-survival, or non-professional related quests for money.

Because it will make me happy.

I think the one most depressing and freeing thing I learned early-on in Hollywood, that some of the richest people I met, were the most unhappy.  It was really a revelation.  In some ways, I think knowing that put up a roadblock to me learning that I could derive satisfaction from a financial return until later in life.  Once I met some people who were wealthy AND well-adjusted, it because a lot more clear that money really, honestly, has little to do with being happy.

So the next time you catch yourself being All About the Benjamins, run a quick “five why’s” and then put the results to use. I suspect that in most applications, it’ll speed your way towards really being happy.

A New Audience


How you doin’?

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted here.

I’ve been busy finding a new audience to connect with.

And Hollywood? I’m sorry, but I have to tell you, I’ve found someone else.  It’s not your fault, really; it’s mine.

I just couldn’t stand to be in a business with such an adversarial stance against it’s audience.

I always came at making media from two vantage points.  The first was that I wanted to make things that made it easier both for me to understand my fellow man, and for my fellow man to understand me (or whatever the theme was that attracted me to the media I was making).  The second was in delivering a given product to a distributor on time, on budget and with satisfying creative process, which was an elusive thrill.

It actually happened once or twice; but it’s rarity was frustrating and wrought with way too much time away from my family, way too many consecutive hours awake, and far too little opportunity to connect with my audience.

Oh, and Hollywood, I hate to tell you, but the other love I’ve found? It lives right next door, so you’ll probably be seeing me come and go, but we’ll try not to pay too much mind to each other, ok?

Because now I get to work on fashioning one more of the online video nails in your traditional media coffin.

We’re building a new kind of distribution network that actually helps content creators connect with their audiences and gives them new way of acknowledging and rewarding those who engage with their media.  We’re starting with videogame enthusiasts and their live video streams – and we think it’s going to be good.

I’m excited about giving those who share media with others a way to build an active feedback loop with their viewers, it’s a term we’re going to start calling User Generated Loyalty.

One of the other exciting things that comes with building a service for others to use?  I actually get to get out of the office and *go talk* with the community we wish to serve and ask them questions about what they want.  I get to see them get excited when we talk about what we’re doing.  It’s audience feedback at it’s finest and closest.  And even better is that we can adapt along the way.  We get to be Agile.

In film & tv – once it was done, it was done.  No continual tweaking.  No trying out of new things (unless you start a whole new project).  Traditional media is Waterfall Development at it’s absolute most wasteful.

If any of our mutual friends want to follow what I’m up to from here on out – feel free to check out our startup blog over at GxStream.  I’ll also be up to the occasional guest post over at Techdirt this year, so feel free to find me there too. will live on – I’ll be happy to keep fielding the once-in-a-while request for mentoring or guidance in traditional media (even though most of my guidance consists of “run away as fast as you can.”), and Hollywood, maybe you and I will meet again one day, but just as friends.

Buy n’ Return

There is a practice among reality television production and low budget production that seems to be growing that I want to address.

I call it the “Buy N’ Return.”

In this scenario, a production hasn’t thought through their creative needs enough to budget appropriately to get what they want on screen.

Instead of adapting the creative needs or finding more money, the production will send out folks to local businesses to buy items, unpack them, use them, and return them when done.  In essence, free prop or set dressing rentals.

Personally, I find this practice demeaning, and ultimately harmful to all of us.

It costs the store money, by having to resell said item at a lower price since it’s been opened.  That means the store owners, or commission based salespeople all have a little less money to spend on, oh, maybe cable? or maybe for the items being peddled on the television commercials (and when those companies have a drop in sales, they cut back their ad spending).

Beyond that, it’s simply dishonest; and it’s punishing other business owners and their employees for your own bad planning.

I’d encourage business owners in LA to adopt a “no sales to production without a 15% restocking fee” so that you can afford to keep buying the things that ultimately keep television content creators in business – and that is an audience that listens to marketing for products they can afford to buy.

Win-Win-Win, you know?

I Want to Work for the Goog.

Sometimes, a phone call is all it takes to feel the rush of excitement that accompanies innovative thinking, and people. The sense of exhilaration that accompanies people who are truly working on building something new, know it, and are busy trying to keep up with their creation.

That was the heart of a great phone call with someone at Google today.

In contrast to the phone calls we have every day with traditional television and film folks; those conversations are often dominated by risk aversion, and protectionism of our existing business models.

The difference in palpable enthusiasm (even in the face of acknowledged challenges) was noteworthy, and notable.

Goog, you and I are going to find a happy place one day.

Another Missed Opportunity

Today, the Obama Administration recommended making “illegal” streaming of content a felony in the US.

I’m sure that many of my colleagues in the Producers Guild of America applaud this step.

I see it as a huge missed opportunity, and one that will only hasten our demise as a creative industry.

To my fellow producers; don’t you fight with your studio and network execs every single day about costs? Don’t they ask why you can’t do it for less? After all, there’s this kid on YouTube who did this *amazing* thing for no money…

Every day, our distributors ask us to do more, for less money. And it’s not because piracy is destroying our business; it’s because there’s MORE COMPETITION in the content marketplace. Vastly more.

And the more audience we drive away from our product via these campaigns of criminalizing our underserved audience; the more we drive distributors and networks to either acquire content that was produced by that YouTube kid, for a lot less money than funding your project; or they go out of business. Or sell off a channel to someone else (OWN, anyone?).

Instead of finding new ways to band together, and create new business models; ones that include production financing, we’re shooting ourselves in the other foot. We’re going to go from a hobble, to sitting in a wheelchair.

Instead of finding ways to support those young producers coming up who CAN do a lot of things better, faster and cheaper than we can; we shut them out by saying “here’s what we believe about our Intellectual Property, it’s WORTH MORE than yours is,” and you know what? When a Charlie Sheen auto-tune music video gets 10m views in a week and half; we’re wrong.

The Five Rules of Media Creation

As I work to create more videos in my spare time (ha!), I wanted to post my current thesis on new media creation; and what Producers need to do in order to compete with television. I’m assuming those reading this actually would like to make money off their video products one day. If you’ve no intention of ever showing your videos to a wider audience, then really, none of this applies;)

But for the rest of you, make no mistake, if you are making new media, television (and quite possibly theaters too) are your competition.  So are games, and the web at large.

The question is, how do you grab the attention of your intended audience and keep it?  Let’s get the obvious point out of the way, that is:

Tell a Great Story.

But beyond that, there are five things that we must learn from our competition as we attempt to wrest audience and maybe even dollars away from them and to our own media and/or sites.

  • Plan ahead

Far ahead.

Networks and Studios both engage their “investors” (in the case of television, it’s ad buyers, who attend each year’s upfronts, in the case of Studios – it’s their investment bankers) far in advance in order to gain their investments.

Brands plan their ad buys for Fall, based on what they see from the networks in Spring; a 6 month lead time.New Media producers looking for brands to help fund their already-in-progress shoots are way behind the curve.

Figure out how to create your up digital upfront package and get brands or companies behind you, with a coordinated plan as to how they will benefit from the final media release; OR make a plan to self-finance your content until you have enough traction to attract either ad dollars or a fanbase loyal enough to patronize your content production (via subscriptions, donations, Kickstarter, etc.)

  • Become Technically Proficient

New media, and low cost programming in general, means that you yourself are going to be wearing a lot of hats.

It means you can’t be the person in the corner office *just* coming up with ideas.  The things you should be minimally proficient at:
– Creative formatting, writing outlines/beat sheets or scripts to follow
– Operating a camera
– Editing, Compressing & Uploading video

Bonus points for learning motion graphics software, and website building platforms.

  • Be Brand-Safe Aware

You serve two masters.

One is whoever is helping your media stay afloat financially, and the other is your audience/traffic.

Like love and marriage,  you can’t have one without the other (go ahead, sing it to yourself); so Brand “safety” answers the question;  Is your content creatively safe for the brand?

A lot of major brands shy away from content that contains swearing/nudity or violence.  So make an assessment or ask your brand what their comfort levels are.  If you don’t know, assume that their tolerance for those elements is pretty low, and move up in conversations if your creative demands it.

  • Be Covered Legally

Networks spend a lot of money on lawyers.You don’t have to.

They do this primarily because litigious individuals out there will always sue those with the deepest pockets, and you as the producer need to help legally protect the distributors and the sponsors.  However, there are basic things you can do to lower your liabilities and protect third parties you do business with in creating content, including:

– Clear your music, and/or do not use music you don’t have clearances for
– Get signed deal memos from people working with you, and appearance releases for those on camera, at minimum

Just those two things will put you on the road towards being somewhat covered for E&O insurance; or meeting your sponsors and distribs minimum protection requirements. There’s a few others to learn about; my advice, hire someone who knows if you can.

  • Be Prepared to Advertise

I found out something I kind of knew, but didn’t really think about last week from an Ad Agency.

Their brands (and they have some huge ones) care more about how many eyeballs you’re going to get to see the content, and how you’re going to do that, than the content itself.

Just putting up a piece and hoping it goes viral or gets seen because it’s out there is not enough.You’ll need a strategy that pushes your content in the right places to reach your audience and get the viewership up to make your sponsors happy and be able to make more content.  It may involve Facebook, or Twitter, or a website, or an ad-buying campaign or all of the above.

Have a plan, and be sure to factor it into your time and budget.

So, there you have it; my five rules of media creation in the Brave New World.

No go forth, and make stuff!

You want to create professional media? You’re going to need some help.

I’ll be the first to admit it; there was a time not too long ago that I thought I could create professionally deliverable, full-length video episodes pretty much by myself.  (By “professionally deliverable” – I’m talking about media that you can deliver and/or monetize to third party distributors and be able to get E&O insurance on.  If you just want to distrib on your own site, or someplace that won’t take down your video, and don’t care about takedown notices or lawsuits, then you can just ignore the rest of the post!).

You’d think that after 13 years in the business, I would know better; but apparently it was a lesson I needed to relearn.

Making professional media is a team sport. Sometimes your team might be small, but it’s a very difficult and time-consuming proposition to do it all on your own.

There’s some exceptions to this rule, for sure. Especially if you are young, have very low personal overhead, and no spouse or children. And even better, if you don’t need much sleep.

Making professional grade media is all about focus, and time. The tools are pretty much all accessible, but how much time do you personally have to learn about deliverable formats? Or legal clearances. Or deal memos with the people who help you. Or learn a motion graphics program so you can create your own good-looking titles.

The list of things to handle on your own grows pretty fast when you want to produce quality content in a time and cost-efficient way.

Which is why you need a team.

You can be smart about who and when you have help, and totally crush it (as Gary Vaynerchuk likes to say); but if you’re dead set on doing it all on your own, have a ready supply of coffee, and be willing to wait a long time for a finished product.

I think there’s a few mission critical places in the development, production, and post processes where focused help will get you along much faster, and much further; in particular:

  • Development – have a pro review your script or beat sheet (docu/reality document outlining what it is you’re actually going to be shooting) and schedule and compare it to your budget – making sure you’re not setting yourself up for failure.  Also, the pro should ask you how you plan to distribute, and help you make a list of deliverables accordingly so that you account for the time and/or cost of each deliverable.
  • Production – Either hire a pro to handle, or to teach you/your team how to properly clear your media.  This is hugely important.  Also have them review your equipment lists and that you’ve answered all the questions you needed to, and tested things you don’t know about (for instance, if you need to cover a scene with more than one camera, how are you synchronizing them in post?  Are you slating each time you roll? Or are you getting cameras that can jam sync timecode? Or are you planning on spending lots of time in Final Cut trying to sync things up manually?)
  • Post Production – Start checking off deliverables.  Marketing elements, still images, the video. Metadata. A binder of your clearance items.

It’s doable that you can have a pro just kind of “check in” and give you guidance along the way, rather than hire a producer full time to do this stuff for you.  Point of reference, hiring a Line Producer, who usually brings in 2-4 more production staff to help with this process on a regular tv show, runs between $2000-3000 per week in reality, and anywhere from $3k-12k per week in scripted tv.  Some feature film Line Producers/UPM’s at studios are between $15k-25k per week.

At any rate, you CAN find folks (I’m one of them) who know the waters of media production in a wide variety of formats, and their knowledge and experience will more than make up for whatever it costs to have them on board.

It can mean the difference between being able to distribute your content at all, or not.