Tell us a little about yourself as individual. You are currently a lawyer looking to venture into the film industry as a creative. How do we go from lawyer to filmmaking?
I am a business and entertainment lawyer in NYC. I have consulted aspiring, and independent filmmakers on their upcoming and current film projects. I am also a mental health advocate and enjoy doing work to increase awareness on depression, self-injury, and suicide in the black community. I have always been interested in writing creatively, but I didn’t consider filmmaking a possibility until recently. As a young adult, I used to write stories and poems on a variety of issues.
Last year, a client invited me to a creative group that was in the early stages of creating a web series. At first I thought I’d observe and offer business and legal advice when needed, but I found myself contributing more and more. Needless to say I joined the team. That decision allowed me to rediscover a hidden interest in storytelling. Over this summer, I learned more about screenwriting and began writing a story inspired by my life experiences and mental health. Due to the nature of my work, I think filmmaking can be a great vehicle to address issues within our community, in particular, the stigma of mental health treatment and silent suffering.
We are seeing a big push of women filmmakers wanting to start their own production companies, what are the basics that need to happen in order to be an official business?
I am excited to see this shift in filmmaking and love to see women entrepreneurs pursuing their passions! Starting a film production company can be a very exciting, overwhelming, and complicated experience all at once. First, she should determine which business structure is best for her needs. There are a few options to choose from: a sole proprietorship, general partnership, joint venture, limited partnership, limited liability company, and a corporation ( S-Corp or C-Corp ). Each structure is different with respect to its liability protection and taxation. The producer should consider choosing the entity that reduces the risk of exposure to personal liability.
Typically, LLCs are used for smaller production companies, while Corporations are used for larger companies, but it’s always best to consult with a tax professional or a business attorney to understand the benefits or drawbacks of either entity before proceeding. After deciding on the business structure, file the necessary documents with the Secretary of State. LLCs require an Articles of Organization and a Corporation requires an Articles of Incorporation. The next step would be to publish the company by running an ad in the local newspaper for consecutive weeks. Check the publication laws of your state to determine the duration of the advertisement. Upon completion of publication, the production company should receive the Certificate of Publication, which proves the publication requirements have been fulfilled. Once received by the Secretary of State, the production company should receive its Business Certificate by mail. The company should also secure a tax identification number and prepare its internal operating agreements.
The LLC requires an Operating Agreement and the Corporation requires Bylaws. These documents govern the business. So those are the basics, but I would also encourage the producer to have a business plan because third parties may require it in the future. The producer should also consider professional relationships with attorneys, accountants and insurance brokers. Contracts, an accounting system, and insurance policies will be needed. If she intends to hire staff, workers compensation insurance is needed. She will also need Errors & Omissions insurance, and a policy to cover equipment. A completion bond may also be required under some financing scenarios. She should also consider how she will finance the business—self-funding, incurring debt, or equity financing.
In the world of filmmaking the collaborative process is the key to success. This often means joining forces with another individual to establish a business or even a script. Tell us why partnership agreements are important to have and what other ways should you protect yourself?
Collaboration is definitely a key to success in filmmaking and can occur in any stage of the filmmaking process. BEFORE any collaborative work begins, I strongly encourage filmmakers to get the terms of the collaboration in writing and signed by the parties. Each party should know what to expect, in terms of ownership rights, their obligations under such agreement, as well as what happens in case of breach. It is also important to note that these contracts are necessary to ensure the production company has the proper chain of title for their projects. The chain of title is an unbroken record of ownership of the film property. For example, if one or more parties collaborated on the script, this agreement should be recorded in the chain, as well as the underlying rights for the script. Another area of concern for the filmmaker is how to protect intellectual property, such as ideas, that unfortunately are not protected under the US copyright laws.
I recommend expressing the complete idea in writing and registering it with the Copyright Office before pitching it to a production company, and also negotiate a contract for compensation if the production company exploits their idea without permission. The latter part may be tough to accomplish with a bigger studio or production company; however if the idea is novel, it may be worth protecting under contract law. Typically, though, the production company provides the filmmaker with a Submission Release to sign before it hears the pitch.
As you know starting off in any industry cost money. Many of our filmmakers in the collective are taking the indie route and often a lot of their funds are going straight to the film. What are some avenues they can use to get the contracts they need if they don’t have a lawyer?
Filmmaking is a business and a huge investment for the independent filmmaker. I understand that every cent counts, but I highly encourage filmmakers to create a budget for legal consultation. Contracts are everywhere on the Internet, or in filmmaking reference books, but keep in mind that your situation may require more protection than what the sample contract is providing, and therefore increasing your risk for exposure. A filmmaker may also get assistance from the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts in their area. As it relates to issuing shares or membership interests in your production company, I wouldn’t recommend using contracts found online or in a reference book. I highly recommend legal consultation and representation from a securities law or film financing attorney. Securities laws are complex and the filmmaker and company will risks exposure to civil and criminal penalties.
Switching gears a little.
What stories are you looking forward to telling as a budding filmmaker?
I am interested in telling stories that will start an honest conversations about black mental health, the prevalence of silent suffering, and the stigmas related to seeking mental health treatment. I like to bring awareness to the everyday situations experienced by people of color and the impact these situations may have on mental health. These stories can be told through any medium, but I think the message will be more effective if it’s received in a film. Films are viewed across a huge span of people and its psychological effects can inspire changed behavior.
What female filmmaker inspires you at the moment?
There are too many to name, but I really enjoy Issa Rae’s productions! She’s dope! ☺
What legacy do you want to leave behind as a filmmaker?
I hope my legacy will be far reaching so that people will understand who I am and my purpose. I’m involved in a lot currently – law practice, mental health advocacy, peer support group leader of the I Love My SIS project, a woman of Delta, a mom, and so much more—but as far as filmmaking, I hope I tell stories that have the power to effect social change, especially as it relates to people of color and mental health.
This content shall not be considered legal advice, and is given for informational purposes only. For more information, or to contact the attorney, please visit Nicole S. Cameron
Shivawn Hill, is a writer, director and a storyteller at heart. She’s currently in post production with her short documentary film. She believes that one day soon she’ll form the ultimate group of Storytellers who will travel the world to share the stories of creative peculiar people.