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Topic: First "Professional" film score, need help with business issues!

  1. #1

    First "Professional" film score, need help with business issues!

    Hello fellow composers,

    I have the opportunity to score my first "professional" independent short film, and would like some advice on how best to handle the situation contractually. (I say "professional" simply because its not a student film) The movie is a short (10-12 min) which will play in film festivals in the hopes (my guess) to sell the story and turn a profit for him (he co-wrote the script and is the director). What is common practice under these situations? What should I look out for? Anyone know of any sample contract resources I can look at?

    I may be overly paranoid, but I'm always concerned when it comes to business dealings, and try to look at the situation from multiple POV's. Why would this "professional" contact a student to score his film? Either he is honest when he says the production is low on budget, to which he can "only pay $100" and only students will take a gig that pays this low, or he could be trying to pull the wool over a poor students eyes. I'm new to the business of film scoring, and dont really know how to handle this situation. How would you handle the contract for such a movie?

    I've considered is this option. To me, $100 is the basically the same as $0, so I'm wondering if I should write the music for free, but still hold on to ALL rights associated with the project (writers AND publishers) and only grant him sync rights for the short film in perpetuity. I'm considering this option because if he pays me $100, it would be considered a work for hire deal, and I would loose my rights to the music, correct? How important are these considerations? Do you think I could make more money in the long run holding on to my rights and not take an upfront payment? Do you think they will accept this offer, or will my paranoia risk me loosing this gig?

    I'm in a tough situation, and would love any advice you can spare. I thank you in advance for your reply.

  2. #2
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Dec 2002
    Los Angeles

    Re: First "Professional" film score, need help with business issues!

    I say ask for whatever you want... it's not like he's a big shot doing a studio film...

  3. #3
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Apr 2005
    St. John's NL

    Re: First "Professional" film score, need help with business issues!


    You'll see sample holywood-style contracts here....obviously a very different situation, but you could look these over and use their structure/wording as general guidelines, substituting your own stipulations where applicable.

    About rights/money:

    Be aware (if you've never scored a film at all before) that it's a hell of a lot of work. That said.....

    If your'e willing to do it for nothing, but can get a hundred, do it! Better to do all that work and have a little money to show for it. I did the same thing this past winter, and it sucked. It would have sucked more, however, if I was entirely broke afterward. It was a student film, so other than talking general terms of use, there was no contract. I don't advocate this practice-by all means: put it all in writing. Do make sure that you don't do a work for hire deal. If 100 bones is practically nothing, than the least you should have at the end of the job is some good music that still belongs to you, and some back-end revenues.

    Congrats on the the gig and good luck. I'm currently waiting for my last pro-bono score to land me some paying work after screening next week at a major local film fest, so I sympathize greatly.


  4. #4

    Re: First "Professional" film score, need help with business issues!

    Thanks for the replies and the link. I have scored numerous student films so I know the work (and fun!) involved. My main question is really out of my concern of not getting screwed in my contract Sure, I can ask for whatever I want, but when they come back at me and say NO, I need to know what to do next, how far I should bend, etc. I know this comes with experience, but I would love to have some general guidelines out of the gate. Thanks for helping me gain that knowledge.

    If I'm understanding your post correctly Belbin, your saying its possible to get paid to write a score and still have it NOT be a work for hire deal? In my readings, it was my impression that if someone hires you to write a piece of music, its automatically a work for hire deal, and in the end the person who hired you owns your work and the publishing, with the composer maintaining the writers credit and the composers fee. Am I correct?

    Thanks again for the quick replies. If I post a draft of my proposed contract, would anyone be willing to give me pointers? Thanks again!

  5. #5

    Re: First "Professional" film score, need help with business issues!

    This does not have to be a work for hire if you do the paper work correctly. First of all...I highly recommend a lawyer...specifically, an entertainment lawyer. Most of them will work on a percentage and take 5% or your earnings on the projects they work on. So...5% of $100 is $5. Seriously. Some will do it knowing that they can be with you on the $100 projects now and then on the $100,000 project in the future as well.

    Secondly, tell the director that if you are going to agree to do this score for $100 (much, much lower than what you should be getting for the amount of work involved), that you want to keep both the writer's share and publishing rights to the music. You will then need to set up a licensing agreement with him and your music publishing company (which you need to set-up with either BMI or ASCAP) that you will license the music to him for the amount of $100. Heck...see if he can license the film for $250 and that extra $150 will ultimately cover the costs of setting up your publishing company with the PRO.

    Don't forget to include details in a deal letter like your name must be in the billing block of all posters and advertising, in the same font and size, width of all key crew, etc...etc...You will have your own title card in the film that says specifically "Music composed by...."

    Short films do not have the commercial path that features do obviously. But occasionally one might be picked up by HBO or something and shown on a cable channel. Make sure you are specific about what you are licensing the music for. You can say for festivals only. Then if the guy gets lucky and sells it to HBO for $30 grand...he would have to renegotiate the license deal with you for the music to be included on a TV broadcast. But be careful...if you make the license agreement too restrictive, they will just throw out your music at that future point and have it all re-scored by someone else so they can keep their $30 grand. So...maybe a clause is needed to included either a percentage of future gross profits on the film, or something. The assumtion is that the short will never make money. Most are not made for that purpose, rather they are calling cards for the individuals involved to get future work. But if it does...you want to be covered.

    This is why a lawyer is handy because there are a lot of details and a way to say things which cover your behind that you would never think of. Again, a lawyer that will take a percentage...not one that will charge an hourly fee. A deal letter for something like this does not have to be complicated and can be done in 2 pages. But, it needs to be worded correctly. You do not have to be in a "work for hire" situation here.
    Brian W. Ralston

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  6. #6
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Apr 2005
    St. John's NL

    Re: First "Professional" film score, need help with business issues!

    Quote Originally Posted by Brian W. Ralston
    This does not have to be a work for hire....
    That clarifies my post well, thanks. Put in the contract that it's NOT a work for hire, and it won't be. That simple. Client disagrees, client can get bent. Don't give an inch on this. As brian said, for the amount you're getting paid, you deserve every other amenity there is to be named. Especially the rights to your music.

  7. #7

    Re: First "Professional" film score, need help with business issues!

    A project is not work for hire unless a contract specifically says it is. Even so, I personally would take $0 and avoid contracts as long as possible. As the copyright holder of your music, you have incredible power over them when they don't have a contract.

    I did a TV show last year where they'd already been cutting with my music, including theme, without a contract. They finally get around to handing me a contract and it has an unbelievable clause that says "Composer agrees that all Performance Royalties, both publishers and writers shares, shall be reserved exclusively for xxx (I don't want to name the network, but I'm told that this wasn't the first time PAX did this.)

    Since they'd already done so much work with my music inserted and replacing it would have been very expensive and a huge nuisance, I got them to change the clause they originally said they wouldn't bend on. I had the power.

    You could find yourself in the same boat. Try to negotiate now for a percentage of future gross income (forget profits, always work off gross) and you'll be lucky to get anything. But without a contract? Ah, now you're in the position of power. "What? I never agreed to let you AIR my music on HBO! I thought it was just for a couple small film festivals. Well, I guess maybe if you give me 10%. Or else you're always welcome to take my music out."

    Actors, set designers, even direcors don't have the incredible power of copyright law that we do. For that reason, unless I'm working a gig where I fear I could be replaced, I delay contracts as long as possible.

    - Mike Greene

  8. #8

    Re: First "Professional" film score, need help with business issues!

    Although it is possible to get hold of 'standard' contracts, there really is no such thing as standard contract since they are negotiated on a project by project basis (paticularly short films). As you suggest, $100 is virtually nothing so as long as your contract stipulates what rights you are after and maybe a clause that if the film ever returns a profit you get a fee or percentage, then both parties are bound to it. For such a low up-front fee, it would be pretty reprehensible for any producer or director to haggle too hard on this.
    I also recommend presenting them with a budget at the end, based on industry standard rates ie your fee, as either a flat fee or a rate per minute of composed music. Include labour fees for mixing, any live musicians, studio hire (even if it is your studio) etc. This way, they can see what it actually costs for music - when people become used to paying nothing for music, they put very little value on it: when they can see how much it costs, they perceive a greater value. You could consider giving them a virtual budget up-front so that you can define exactly how much time and effort you devote to the project. Let them know when you are close to the end of the virtual budget, and if they insist on changes, it will cost them real money.
    I break most of my budgets into thirds: composer fee; studio costs; musicians. This works as a general guideline. Remember also that every piece of equipment you buy is an investment on your career and when people are getting free music, it is not just your time, but your facilities too.

  9. #9

    Re: First "Professional" film score, need help with business issues!

    I agree with every reply - good advice. The main points that I demand (in a nice way) when there is no money are:

    - Not a work for hire (work for hire means the employer gets your rights)
    - Retain writers rights
    - Retain publishing rights (set up a publishing company in your name)
    - Ask for a percentage of the profits (10-15%) instead of, or in addition to, a flat fee

    Good luck!

  10. #10

    Re: First "Professional" film score, need help with business issues!

    Thank you all VERY much for all the replies!! Now that I know you can still get paid for a non "work for hire," it makes me feel a little better. In either case, I will insist on keeping both the writers shares and publishing rights, and since its not a "work for hire," I keep the copyright too, correct? Brain hints at the process to do this, to which I need some quick clarification.

    Quote Originally Posted by Brian W. Ralston
    You will then need to set up a licensing agreement with him and your music publishing company that you will license the music to him for the amount of $100. Make sure you are specific about what you are licensing the music for. You can say for festivals only...
    How do I go about setting up a "licensing agreement with him and my publishing company." I have already setup a publishing company with ASCAP, though I'm not sure where to take it from here. Do I send ASCAP my proposed license, and then have him contact ASCAP to accept it? I need to do more research here, and any advice would be appreciated.

    Using an entertainment lawyer on percentage sounds like a great way to handle this situation. Can anyone recommend how to find a good one? Do they take a percentage of ALL income from the contract (e.g. royalties, etc) or just a percentage of the composers fee? In all honesty, I cant imagine a lawyer doing anything for a 5%, $5 cut, unless I have to sign an exclusivity agreement or something to ensure future business. Since this project was sprung up last min, I dont think I will have the time to really research lawyers, and could potentially get stuck in a bad situation. (or maybe I'm just being paranoid again ) With that in mind, do you think its still worth using an entertainment lawyer, or should I simply use the contract I drafted myself. (I can post it if needed).

    Thanks again everyone. I will keep you updated as things progress (I will be touching base with him shortly).

    P.S. scott cameron, you raise a very good point about a virtual budget. I'm going to give that a shot as well. Thanks!

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