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A close reading of any contract you sign and/or common sense to not sign away your future without fair compensation
Ditto to that, esp if you are looking into reality shows.
It differs by the type of talent but as a general rule you need to make sure that if you enter into an agreement you do so with a signed contract that the talent fully understands and consents to, and that ensures the talent will be fairly compensated for her or his services. If you are representing a screenwriter or producer, you need to make sure they own the legal rights to make the film- for example if it is a sequel or based on a book, that you have contracted for the right to adapt it into a film
If your talent is sharing in the profits from a film they need to make sure they get gross profits, as net profits are illusory and subject to manipulation and put you at the bottom of the list of people to be paid.
For writers, a share in the profits from secondary material such as action figures, as well as being given first right to write all sequels or television tie-ins or novelizations, and also a share in the profits of those. It depends on bargaining power. How badly does the studio want the film and what type of concessions will it make- gross points are great in theory but the studio does not like to give it to talent. Except for Tom Cruise most actors don't get gross points.
Definitely, this is basic business knowledge, and with the right books its not even necessary to take a class. Also a law school class will teach you entertainment law.
it means nothing, I've learned. I'm trying to get my bucks out of a late-night show
I would agree with much of what my colleagues have said. To add something new, working with experienced counsel who understands you and advocates on your behalf to get reasonable deals and enhance your relationships goes a long way. Like most businesses, the entertainment industry is a web of people. Sometimes you have to give a little to get a lot. In the end, documents are there to protect the relationships and "deals" you make in the case of disputes.
I highly recommend that you always work with some sort of talent agreement. Research the SAG/AFTRA agreements to give yourself an idea of the terms. The very best legal advice I can give: Start a relationship with an entertainment attorney who you trust. That person will be looking out for your best interest ever time you have an offer come in. Best of luck!
I specialize in intellectual property, i.e. trademarks and copyrights. As an entertainer, you likely own copyrights in your work which can be your writings, drawings, live and recorded performances, or any other creative work in "a tangible medium of expression." These properties can be further protected by registering the work with the U.S. Copyright Office, assuming that you retain some or all rights in the work. That probably is where my colleagues advice comes in about having a talent agreement which specifies what you own v. what your publisher, producer, studio, etc. might own of those rights. Other rights you could have which should be protected are your right of publicity/privacy (i.e. controlling who can display or use your identity or likeness) and service mark or trademark protection if you offer related goods or perform your entertainment services under a particular brand (including your identity possibly). An IP attorney like me and others on this site can advise you about these rights, what you can or cannot claim, if and how you should register them and, most importantly, how to monitor infringement activity and deal with that if it occurs. For additional information, I refer you to this linked article that I wrote: http://www.avvo.com/legal-guides/ugc/what-is-intellectual-property.
Traditionally I have been engaged by agents to review contracts for their clients, but more recently actors are looking to build their "brand" so that translates into entrepreneurial legal services (collaborations, endorsements, sponsorships, trademarks, LLCs).
A close reading of any contract you sign and/or common sense to not sign away your future without fair compensation.
It is worth paying a small amount of money to an entertainment law attorney to review all contracts before they are signed. Especially long term contracts. Verbal statements do not count once a written agreement is signed. The terms must be in the contract or they do not exist. And as for verbal agreements, I do not recommend them as they are difficult to prove and enforce.
It is all about "certainty". By which I mean knowing for certain what you want to agree with the producer that wishes to employ your talent. As the other writers here have stated - ideally you should record this agreement in written form, and both sides should sign that agreement to show that you have approved it. The terms should include: (1) what are you being asked to perform in?; (2) when (and where) are you expected to perform (and for how many hours/days)?; (3) how much will you be paid?; (4) when will you be paid (upfront/after you finish)?; (5) what cancellation/termination provisions are there?; (6) do you get paid if they cancel?; (7) do you get any further payment (back end/profit share) after the actual performance is over?; (8) how is that accounted and paid?; (9) does the agreement follow industry standard terms (eg Equity/PACT/SAG)?; (9) what rights are being granted (full assignment/limited licence)?; (10) in what territories/formats? (11) are there any holdbacks? (12) are there any options on further work (eg next TV series)?; (13) are there any "force majeure" provisions - such as what happens if weather stops the shoot, or you are ill and cannot work? (14) what credit do you get and where will it be shown? There are many others, but those are the basics.