Rather than wallow in something as dry and dull as contracts, let me say two things about doing business in the TV and film industry that surprised the heck out of me as we entered the contract phase of my show.
First, money brings out the mean in people. There is SO much money on the table in the TV and film industries that a whole bunch of dirty, rotten scoundrels, crooks, and greedy jerks gravitate to these worlds. Lying is common. Cheating is common. Hosing people over is common.
It’s an industry where you had better have a smart, savvy, experienced agent and an absolutely top-notch lawyer, or better, several top-notch lawyers. You should never, ever, sign a contract of any kind in the TV/film biz without someone who really, truly knows what they’re doing being involved in negotiating, reviewing, and signing it.
This brings me to my second big surprise. In print publishing, contracts are civilized affairs where most of the language is agreed upon very readily. In fact, most contracts are called boilerplates, meaning they’re standardized and the same from contract to contract with only small variations here and there.
A few terms—how much the author is paid, how long the publisher has to print the book, how many copies of the book the author gets, how long before the rights revert to the author, and a few other details are about all that differs from contract to contract.
Not so with TV and film! You can expect EVERY. SINGLE. CLAUSE. to have someone try to challenge it, breach it, or break it outright over the course of the project getting made. Because of that, every single word matters. Heck, every comma matters.
Because of this, a bunch of lawyers go over every contract with fine-toothed combs. It can take a dozen or more back-and-forths between big teams of lawyers to settle on the final language in a single contract or even a single clause of a contract.
Also because of this, TV/film contracts have serious penalties written into them for breaching the contract in any way. This is why actors will flatly refuse to tell a talk show host anything about an upcoming movie, it’s why directors will never tell anyone what projects they’re thinking about developing, and it’s why I often have to politely refuse to answer questions people ask me (out of sweet and genuine interest) about my projects.
Something else that’s super interesting about Hollywood is verbal agreements are binding. As in they are considered to be legal contracts you can get sued over and be forced to honor.
Kim Basinger famously went to a pitch meeting over a meal with a producer and a writer. They told her about the project and she smiled in response. Based on that, they went forth and got investors and money using her name as being “attached” to the project. She said she never agreed to do the film and didn’t want to make it. She promptly got sued for over 20 million dollars…and lost the lawsuit.
Hence, I–the ignorant author who knows zilch about the TV/film business–am NEVER allowed on to any of the phone calls with producers, studios, lawyers, or other executives.
My agents do all the talking for me.
I haven’t mentioned yet that my literary agent, for all her knowledge of the business, chose to bring in a really experienced TV/film agent, as in 30+ years in the business, senior VP of one of the most prestigious agencies in the business, to work on my deal with her.
My project was clearly developing quickly into something big, and my literary agent wanted to make sure nothing went off the rails with it. Which turned out to be a great call. There were some bumps along the way with various contract issues, losing a producer early on, and oh, that little pandemic thing that happened.
In my case, there were several big contracts to sign—the shopping deal, the deal sheet and the full deal contract with a production company, a contract with the studio funding the project and distributing the show, and then one last contract that was nothing but what happens if I break a non-disclosure agreement or breach a contract. (And it wouldn’t be pretty. That sucker has teeth!)
Personally, I would never want to attempt a TV/film deal without an agent who specializes in doing just that. It’s very complicated, the legal ins and outs are totally different from print publishing, and the opportunities to get ripped off or screwed are huge.
In my next post, I’ll talk about how long it takes to get making a TV show or film off the ground and a few of the curve balls we got thrown in my show. Until then, what’s your favorite movie you’ve seen recently or show you’ve binge-watched?