What Actors Should Consider Before Signing a Contract

You’re an actor, which means you shouldn’t have to spend the majority of your day deciphering the fine print of a contract to understand how it will affect your future like a scholar deciphering the Dead Sea scrolls. From understanding exclusivity provisions with limitations on how often and where you can work to the length of time you are locked into a contract, having a lawyer by your side can benefit not only your long-term success but your peace of mind.

These days, engaging an attorney for contract review is no longer optional. “[Entertainment law] is an amalgam of other kinds of law: contract, employment, intellectual property, writer publicity law. There are so many different facets,” according to Los Angeles–based law practitioner Tamara Kurtzman. Against this backdrop is the classic “David versus Goliath” underdog situation where a slippery producer may attempt to exploit their lofty bargaining position by inserting one-sided contract provisions and terms which are so oppressive that no fair and honest person would accept them. These are sometimes referred to as contracts of adhesion and are frowned upon by courts.

Knowing your legal rights and how to assert them is the best antidote to becoming the “perfect patsy.” An attorney will ensure that your rights are protected and that you are on a level playing field with producers when it comes to negotiating a fair and even-handed contract. You worked hard. You deserve it.

What qualities should you look for in selecting an attorney?

While it’s important to seek someone with experience in the entertainment industry and who is an expert when it comes to contracts law, don’t be blinded by career ambitions when it comes to choosing a lawyer. Taking a page out of the “Jerry Maguire” playbook, some flashy attorneys brag about their connections to studios, directors, and producers. This leads vulnerable actors to believe that contacts should trump knowledge.

Be careful as this strategy could backfire. For these “quasi-agent” types, sealing the deal and taking their cut can rank higher on their list of priorities than protecting the actor’s rights and ensuring that the actor understands what he or she is signing. And absorbing the obligations of the contract, itself a Herculean task is left to the actor.

Failing to have a contract explained clearly and concisely inevitably leads to misunderstanding, which can lead to a parade of horribles from missing out on a share of merchandising to sacrificing expense-paid travel, a DVD copy of the film or project, or a safety net in the event you are fired or the project plummets. The tragedy in all of this is that it’s much easier to negotiate a term before pen touches paper than it is after the ink is dry.

Before signing, consider both the long and the short term and how they apply to everything from your required amenities while on set to restrictions while shooting intimate scenes such as a private nude scene. A lawyer can help you understand your options and place you in a favorable position to get what you desire. To the extent you can’t afford a lawyer (let’s face it, they are expensive), the internet is an invaluable resource that you should tap into.

“With no other option, read, read, read, and then read it again,” says Kurtzman. “The internet is amazing. If you don’t understand a term, look it up,” and be prepared to invest a good chunk of time to fully understand terminology and phrasing that’s not exactly written to be easily understood. “Take it very seriously. Don’t get swept up with the excitement [of landing the role], save the celebrating for after you’re confident that what you signed is something you’re willing to live with not only in the immediate but in the long term.”

The size of the role is often a good indicator of whether to get a lawyer. If it’s a small role or a background role, paying someone hundreds of dollars to look over the contract makes little sense.

At the same time, if it’s your first major contract with a studio film or a network television show and there are long-term ramifications, don’t be penny wise and pound-foolish.

Michael is an attorney specializing in entertainment law and a professionally-trained actor. He is a partner in the law firm of DeBlis Law.