Obtaining Rights and Licenses: The Adolescence of a Film

**This was my experience with obtaining rights for my film. While this will probably be very dry for the average reader (of a documentary filmmaker’s website…) I hope this is helpful to new filmmakers who are looking to get their projects ready for distribution.**

Welcome to My Problem

When I started Grad School, my Business of Modern Media professor told us, “You need a piece of paper for every shot, sound, and image you use in your film.” This piece of paper, of course, is a written agreement between the filmmaker and the copyright holder stating that you have permission to include his or her work in your project.

I always wondered: Who do I contact for rights to things? What do I tell them? How much do things cost? There are so many variables to obtaining rights and clearances. It is unfair to expect anyone to give you a step by step process. Nope, the only way to navigate this extremely important phase of film producing is to do it the same way you navigated through high school: Awkwardly, anxious, and with a bit of disdain towards authority.

Luckily for me, my film is mostly based on my family, so I was able to use a lot of old family photos and 8mm footage. However, with my project being an historical documentary, there was no way for me to skirt around images that ran across the front pages of newspapers and defined the forced busing era. When all was said and done I needed the rights to three types of footages: still images, music, and news footage.

Coming to terms with delegating…

I tend to be a Do-It-Yourselfer. I’m an amateur carpenter and home-brewer, and I like to be involved in every part of the process. I was able to control most parts of filming my project until it came to obtaining rights. I hate making cold calls, I hate asking for things, and I hate the awkward exchange of negotiating (However I love Pawn Stars…huh…) I had to put someone else in charge of establishing relationships with the necessary companies (i.e. if you’re a director, this is the perfect job for a producer). Luckily for me I had an outstanding high school intern who was an expert in awkwardly meandering through social circles. I would tell Gabby the types of footage I needed, and she was able to get my foot in the door with sales representatives that were able to sell me the rights I needed. (You aren’t dealing with Hollywood big-wigs here, by the way. Working with these people feels more like you’re ordering a telephone or cable package.)

Rights Types or Death by a Thousand Cuts

Rarely do you find a company that gives you blanket rights to their content. Professor Andrade-Watkins drilled into our heads, “Ask for worldwide, in perpetuity” just about every class. This means you own the rights for that project forever, and your project can be shown around the world. Typically things are based on domestic (USA) or international (“Most Favored Nations”) rights. Obviously you pay more for international. Then you have to decide how long you want to hold the rights for. Obviously you want the rights forever.  However companies make more money with renewable licenses. If you ask for perpetual rights, chances are that they will counter with either a 10 year renewable license, or an annual film festival fee (which was offered to me for various media rights at $750.00/year). It is important to have a vision of where your project is heading. They will try to sell you on the shortest renewable contract because they stand to make the most profit that way. If you have high hopes for your project (like I do for mine) try to hold out for the longer rights, you deserve it, and your project deserves the extra effort.

All done, right? Hahahaha! What rights do you want, dude?! There are four basic types of rights Web Distribution, Television, Limited Theatrical, and Major Motion Picture. Web and TV are relatively straightforward (remembering that TV has pricing for broadcast and  regional). Limited Theatrical is used for film festivals, four-wall screenings, and other small timey one-off screenings. Major Motion Picture is for hard-core distribution. You know – when you’re opening in New York and L.A. so you can qualify for that Academy nomination.

If your plan is to get into some festivals and get a little attention, just get festival rights. If you get a distribution deal you can always go back (hopefully with funder money) and get those additional rights. However, if you can get rights worldwide, in perpetuity at a reasonable price, do it while the offer is out there. I chose not to go with film festival rights because I worked on this project for ten years, and I wanted to sit down at the end of the day and say, “This is my film. I own it and no one can ever mess with it.”  I was also eating a bloody steak and drinking a giant can of Fosters when I said this.

Additionally, it is good to get web rights for certain images, but you don’t need it for all of them. Think about which images you want to use for trailers, posters, website banners, etc… Again, you’ll save yourself money if you have a vision for your project’s distribution before you’re at the checkout counter.

Music. Rights. Suck. Or This Gets Complicated…

The rights I described above work with most types of standard media. However, there is an additional twist when it comes to music – and it ain’t pretty. There are two different types of music rights: Performance and Publishing. I wanted a very specific song about Southie.  One company owned the publishing rights, and another company owned the performance/recording rights. This put me in a bit of a pickle.

The owner of the performance rights was difficult to work with, he was nasty to Gabby, would dodge my calls, and pretended to forget who I was. He wanted $3,000 for the performance rights, worldwide, in perpetuity. This was 75% of my remaining budget. The other company owned the publishing rights, which are the rights for the songwriter. They sent me a standard request form, and wanted to know: Was I was going to use a previously recorded song, or was I going to re-record it? I couldn’t answer this question, as I had no deal with the recording company, and I didn’t want to negotiate for performance rights to a song I didn’t hold to publishing rights to (yeah, try explaining this to your grandmother when she wants to know why you’re not showing your film).

So I submitted the publishing rights request, and emailed the guy saying that I didn’t lock in on recording rights yet. I told him I was either going to use the recording company’s version, or I was going to re-record it myself. I waited patiently, played some Skyrim, and heard back from the publishing company after three weeks (and a carefully worded follow-up email). He offered a $750.00 film festival right for one year. I had 90 days to decide.

It was here that I faced the biggest challenge of the rights collecting phase. The people that knew my film with the song in it insisted that it HAD to stay in the film (no one offered to pay for it however…hmmm…). If I took this deal there was a chance that I would have to pay for two years of very limited publishing rights, which would cost $1,500, and the additional $3,000 if the recording company refused to budge. MUSIC. RIGHTS. SUCK.

I did some soul searching, and I looked up this band from Southie that I saw play at Tom English’s Cottage. I thought that one of their songs served as a formidable replacement for the original Southie song I wanted. I remembered back to my undergrad, and the teachers saying, “Your favorite shot is probably the last one you’ll have to cut.” (or something like that) I decided that the potential $4,500 for 30 seconds of a song was not worth it, and that the money could be better used for additional footage, distribution, and festival entry fees.

I’m very proud of my next move. I contacted the band that had the song I liked and offered them $500.00 for all rights worldwide, in perpetuity. I’m proud of this move because I didn’t low-ball them. I probably could have just asked for it for free, or started with a lower offer, but I offered them a fair price that was a fraction of what I would have paid. Now I have a contract with them that allows me to use their song in trailers, on the web, and anywhere else I want. (Another little tip I got along the way was to refer to the film as a “Project” and not a “Documentary” or “Film.” This way it frees you up to use it in other areas of your marketing and distribution. Thanks to Tracy Strain for that nugget!)

The Numbers Game

If you’re still reading, then you must be really dedicated to your project. God knows my command of the English language and Family Guy-like side-flashes aren’t the reason. Also, most of the stuff I wrote can be learned in a business media class, or a number of books out there (like Shaking The Money Tree or Filmmakers and Financing). However none of these resources gave me cold, hard numbers that provided context before entering negotiations. I never understood why it was always such a difficult question to answer. So here it goes…

Unless you have an in with the artist, or someone in their entourage, be prepared to spend thousands of dollars on music. Otherwise, befriend your local band, buy them a couple pitchers of PBR, and be honest with them about your expectations and resources. (Another tip: local bands are very skeptical of these things. Assure them that you are not taking the rights to their songs, and that you are asking for permission to use it for this PROJECT, and you will do everything you can to be transparent with them.)

For still images, be prepared to pay a few hundred dollars per image. One company gave me all rights worldwide, in perpetuity for $250.00 each. Another company charged me $166.66 each for Broadcast TV and another $166.66 for Major Motion Picture both worldwide, in perpetuity (web was cheaper, but I didn’t take it).

Film footage rights are a whole other monster. I am less acquainted with this area, but I understand some general principles. I was looking for 16mm news footage from the 70’s. It’s good to check with any major public library to see if they have footage like this, otherwise be prepared to do some detective work. I exchanged emails with a public broadcasting company, and they offered me the $750.00 film festival rights, however I still had to pay for the film transfer and digitization through a third party company. I am currently debating on whether or not I want to go down that road. (Most importantly – is it necessary for the film?)

Now You Own a Film

Currently I own all the rights to my film. It was a harrowing experience, but I feel that it has toughened me up, and made me a better filmmaker. It was interesting to watch my family react to the changes I needed to make in order to make my film “legal.” They really love my film, and had a tough time understanding that I couldn’t just throw anything I wanted in there. I was watching TV with my dad, and “Sweet Home Alabama” started playing on some crime drama. He said, “Jeez, I wonder how much it cost to use that!” Yeah, Dad. And I wonder if they can use it in China.

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