(A NOTE FROM THE FOUNDER OF SCREENWRITING STAFFING, JACOB N. STUART) Screenwriters and Friends, this may be one of the most important interviews we have had at ‘The Backstory’. It can sometimes feel impossible to find literary representation as a screenwriter, and even if you do -like myself- it doesn’t guarantee a sale. Everyday I see screenwriters get the raw end of the deal. Not because their work has been stolen (like so many writers fear) but by poorly negotiated contracts – either done by themselves or by an inexperienced Agent. Friends, I highly suggest networking with Entertainment Attorneys, like Mr. Maulraine.
(QUICK INTRO/BIO). “My name is Hakim Mulraine and I am an entertainment and business law attorney with The Mulraine Firm, LLC in New York. As a seasoned professional, with a strong foundation in business, contract, copyright, trademark, publishing, entertainment and media law, my firm is able to serve clients with diverse needs.
In the past decade, I have consulted drafted and negotiated entertainment and media agreements for producers, production companies, songwriters, screenwriters, published authors, athletes, performing artists and reality television personalities. I’ve provided legal assistance with developing, packaging and pitching scripted and unscripted projects to networks and film studios. Also I have assisted clients; which includes, startups and established businesses with business formation, business contracts, film financing, endorsements deals and appearances agreements. Along with my transactional experience, I’ve also provided both leadership and legal assistance on high profile copyright litigation cases which includes several blockbuster films.”
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: What is an Entertainment Attorney’s duty in the Film Industry?
Hakim Mulraine: The duties of an entertainment attorney in the film industry vary greatly. Depending on the stage that the film project is in when the attorney is hired: pre–production, production, principal photography and post–production, a number of legal agreements must be negotiated, drafted and signed. The attorney may be responsible for: business formation; acquiring rights: Life Rights, Option and Literary Purchase Agreement; clearance of rights: Copyright Reports; Finance/Investor Agreements as well as Distribution, Above the Line and Below the Line Agreements.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: Why would a screenwriter need an Entertainment Attorney?
Hakim Mulraine: A screenwriter would need an entertainment attorney to help them protect their work (copyright); acquire rights to literary property, negotiate Option, Literary Purchase Agreement, Script Submission Release, Nondisclosure and/ or Work for Hire Agreements; which may include: Step Deals or Flat Deal Agreements. Some entertainment attorneys can assist with packaging and pitching a screenwriter’s work to production companies and film studios.
There are different kinds of attorneys. There are the traditional entertainment attorneys and there are the more modern dealmaker type entertainment attorneys. The more modern attorneys, based on their skill-set and knowledge of the business, are able to assist their clients with packaging and pitching projects to production companies and film studios. The traditional attorneys are more apt to address offers as they come in.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: When would a screenwriter be better off with an Entertainment Attorney as opposed to a Literary Agent?
Hakim Mulraine: Whether a screenwriter would be better served by an Entertainment Attorney or a Literary Agent will usually depend on a screenwriter’s access and needs. It is very difficult for a writer to obtain an agent, especially inexperienced writers. However, a screenwriter would be able to approach and retain an entertainment attorney if he/she is able to pay the attorney’s hourly rate, a lump-sum of which must be paid up front, called retainer fee, and deposited into escrow. Agents generally take a percentage of the profits that they’ve earned for their clients, usually between 10 to 15%. There are no upfront costs when you work with an agent. A common complaint among writers represent by agents, especially those represented by big agencies, is that they don’t feel that they’re a priority. This may or may not be the case but agents tend to focus a great deal of energy on those clients who are making money at the present time because they get paid when their client gets paid. An Entertainment Attorney; however, is better able to prioritize their clients workload because they are traditionally paid on an hourly basis. If they don’t do the work, they don’t get paid. There are times when Entertainment Attorney’s will accept a contingency fee. Some attorneys will accept partial contingency and partial retainer fee, based on their belief in the screenwriter’s work.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: Should a screenwriter register their script with the Library of Congress or the WGA… or both? And why?
Hakim Mulraine: It is in the best interest of the screenwriter to do all that they can to protect their intellectual property. The best way to do that is by registering your scripts with the Library of Congress and the WGA. If your script is stolen, you will be unable to file an infringement claim in federal court if you haven’t registered your script with the Library of Congress first. Also, you must file your script with the Library of Congress within 90days of completion. Doing so will allow the writing to seek more compensation from infringers, which include, attorney’s fees and statutory damages.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: What suggestions would you give a screenwriter looking to acquire rights for a book?
Hakim Mulraine: In the age where film studios pay millions to option and acquire the film rights to popular books, I would encourage the screenwriter to seek a partnership with the author. If the author is incorporated into the film process, with the promise of receiving a producer’s credit and greater compensation based on the successful of the film, they are more apt to forgo a large upfront sum. Also, who better to steer those fans that have purchased the book to see the film.
Traditionally, studios acquire the film rights to an authors work through an Option and Literary Purchase Agreement. The studio will either hire a screenwriter to write the screenplay or allow the author to write it, which is rare. The author is often times offered an additional consulting fee to be on set during principal photography, in case there are any questions for him/her. However, this consultant title and fee is really a courtesy that is given to make the author feel as though he/she is actually involved in the process. Rarely is the author asked to actually give his/her input.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: When a screenwriter forms a partnership with another writer, and they want to split credit down the middle, what‘s the first thing you suggest to the screenwriter(s)?
Hakim Mulraine: It’s in the best interest of both writers that they negotiate and sign a collaboration agreement before they begin working together. The collaboration agreement will outline the parameters of ownership, control, compensation and credit between the two screenwriters.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: If a screenwriter is not a part of the Guild, what legal battles are they looking to face regarding re-writes, compensation, and rightful credit? Is there a plus side to not being a part of the Guild?
Hakim Mulraine: It is in the best interest of the screenwriter to become a guild member. The terms of the collective bargaining agreement, which was negotiated by the guild, was created to protect screenwriters from being taken advantage of by employers. It outlines everything from: compensation, credit, re-writes sequels to health insurance. As a guild member, screenwriters are protected from writing on spec without any fixed compensation. The guild sets minimum scale payments for flat fee deals as well as minimums per step, for any step deals. Step deals are often used when an employer is using an inexperienced writer. It allows the employer to end the services of the writer at the completion of any step in the writing process. Minimums covered under the collective bargaining agreement includes: Additional Compensation. Addition Compensation is paid to the writer if the Producer makes a sequel, remake or a television spinoff, based on screenwriter’s initial screenplay. These royalties are guaranteed and requires no additional work from the screenwriter. If the screenwriter is asked to write the sequel, remake or television spinoff as well, he/she would be entitled to an additional payment on top of the royalties for writing the initial screenplay.
Screenwriters, who are not members of the guild, will have to make sure to that they negotiate a detailed agreement with their employer that mirrors that rights in the WGA collective bargaining agreement. If not, screenwriter may not receive Addition Compensation for remakes, sequels, spinoffs or receive proper credit for their work. If the nonunion screenwriter doesn’t have good legal representation, then they put themselves in a position to be taken advantage of by their employer. If there is a benefit of not being a union member, it is that the screenwriter may be able to negotiate higher compensation than the WGA minimums.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: In your opinion, what dangers does a screenwriter face if they choose to opt out of using an entertainment lawyer, and take legal matters in their own hands?
Hakim Mulraine: There are a number of dangers that screenwriters face by not hiring an entertainment attorney, which include: poorly negotiated agreements, assigning away their copyrights, not receiving proper credit or compensation as well as being subject to legal liability from investors, copyright holders, distributors and talent.
It is extremely important for screenwriters not to just hire any attorney. Find an entertainment attorney who knows the customs of the entertainment industry. As a seasoned professional that has worked with writers for over a decade, I’m always surprised when I’m asked by a writer to explain the terms and conditions of a contract that they previously signed, which was negotiated by their tax attorney. Hiring an attorney that doesn’t know the business and customs of the industry is a mistake. Many successful industry professional will tell you that they wish they could’ve negotiated better deals in the beginning of the careers. Screenwriters must invest in good representation, because they can’t realistically expect a producer or studio to invest in their work if they are not willing invest in themselves.
Hakim Mulraine, Attorney at Law, THE MULRAINE FIRM, LLC
For more information on Jacob N. Stuart and his new film, AN ADDICTING PICTURE: