When Should an Actor Lawyer Up?

Picture this. You’ve booked a gig, your agent emails you the contract, and suddenly it hits you: “Should I have a lawyer look it over before I sign it?”

It’s a deceptively simple question, with the devil being in the details. It involves the balancing of several factors. On the one hand, agents understand deals. After all, they negotiate them. On the other hand, a lawyer brings a deeper knowledge of the details and the ability to negotiate these details in such a way as to put the actor on a level playing field with large, and somewhat intimidating production companies. This is the only remedy for the proverbial “David versus Goliath” underdog situation. But that knowledge comes with a price. The reality is that most entertainment lawyers charge 5 percent, while some are available at hourly rates as staggering as $300 an hour and up.

This leads to the inescapable question, “Is an attorney always necessary?”

Not surprisingly, most lawyers say, “yes.” While this can be considered self-serving and biased, there is truth to it. One studio lawyer recommended, “Actors should engage an attorney whenever they are presented with a contract to sign. Even if the employer refuses to modify the agreement, the attorney can educate the actor about the terms of the contract, including what rights he/she is giving up.”

Production company lawyer Dina Appleton agrees, up to a point. “Ideally, the moment you are presented with something to sign, you should get a lawyer to review it,” she says. But she tempered this with a dose of reality: “If it’s a small role (e.g., day player or extra) and it’s a scale deal, it’s not typically worthwhile, as you’re not likely to get any changes, and assuming it’s a SAG-AFTRA deal, the guild agreement offers certain built-in protections.”

On the other hand, “if a deal has long-term ramifications,” says Metropolitan Talent Agency president Chris Barrett, legal review and negotiation is critical. Such deals include series deals and multiyear movie or commercial deals.

A talent lawyer at one of the top boutiques opined: “I would say that certainly when you are getting your first studio film and they want to take optional pictures, that would be a moment when you really need a lawyer on your side.” She added, “I also think it’s smart for actors to have a lawyer involved when they are testing for pilots — at that point they are entering into a seven-year deal before they even walk in the room.”

A studio lawyer added, “Any holding or option deal or other kind of development deal where the actor is granting some level of potential exclusivity over their services for some period could merit engaging a lawyer.”

The size and nature of the role impacts the decision on whether to engage a lawyer too. For example, if the role is a lead-role or a major supporting role, you are doing yourself a disservice if you don’t engage an attorney. An attorney may be able to obtain additional benefits/fees and limit what rights are being surrendered. Lawyers are especially important when the role calls for intimate and private scenes where there is nudity, the client is a minor, or the job is non-guild.

And let’s not forget what makes the world go round: Money. One studio lawyer said, “actors who are about to be engaged for their first SAG Schedule F deal for a theatrical feature [e.g., a fee of $60,000 or more] are at the stage of their careers where it makes sense to use a lawyer.” Prior to that point, he said, an actor could be well enough served by the in-house legal department at his talent agency. But be careful. Not all talent agencies have lawyers standing on the sidelines and ready to provide legal advice at the snap of a finger. In that case, you will need to hire your own attorney.

A lawyer at a major agency suggested two other situations that necessitate hiring an attorney: if the actor is offered a net or gross percentage participation or if the actor is not a U.S. citizen. With respect to the latter, tax and Immigration issues may rear their ugly head which could sabotage the gig if a lawyer is not involved to help you navigate the choppy seas.

If you’re about to sign with an agent or a manager, it’s a good idea to have a lawyer review the representation agreement. This is especially true when it comes to managers. Unlike agents, managers are not regulated by the state or the union, and the contracts that some managers offer to new or emerging actors can be one-sided and unfair. These are known as contracts of adhesion.

If you’re producing your own projects, you’ll need a lawyer for a myriad of issues. Acquiring rights; hiring writers, directors, cast, and crew; clearing music; and negotiating with digital or physical distributors are not do it yourself tasks that you can learn by reading an article on Forbes or on Inc.

Finally, if a deal seems confusing or your gut tells you something doesn’t seem right, that is as sure a sign as any to seek out a lawyer. At the end of the day, it’s your career — protect it!

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