Production paperwork: Your guide to the less-glamorous, but important side of video

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I don’t know anyone who got into video for the paperwork. I wish I could write that collecting paperwork is as much fun as capturing your creative vision on film. It isn’t. But being thorough about your project’s paperwork from the beginning will save a lot of headaches down the road.
In the world of video, a good administrative trail is the difference between putting something up on YouTube and selling it to Discovery. It can also be the difference between ending up with a great documentary, or a grand lawsuit. Whether you’re selling a documentary, a hunting TV pilot or just stock footage of mountain bikes riding off into the sunset, here are a few of the standard deliverables most distributors will require.
Personal releases are for everyone on camera, giving you permission to use their likeness. Ideally, fill out prior to shooting, as it’s hard to track people down days, or years later. On the release, note a physical description and attach a picture. There are smartphone apps such as “Easy Release” and “mRelease” now that can greatly streamline this process, allowing you to digitally attach a photo the release and eliminating printed paperwork.
Crowd notice releases. If you’re filming in a crowded area, post a few of these around, notifying passersby that by entering the filming area they are giving you permission to use their likeness. When using these, take a quick video or photo of the signs in place as proof they were used.
Location releases are like personal releases for locations, such as recognizable businesses and houses. Even if you have a film permit, you may need a separate location release. For example, your permit might cover shooting in a state park, but a location release may be needed to use footage of the entrance sign or ranger station. Logo releases. In scripted films, product logos need clearance, whether they are on people’s T-shirts, a soda can or the shelves of a grocery store. In documentaries, it’s more ambiguous. But, trying to get logo releases through corporate red tape can be a major time suck. It can also be expensive to blur them out in post- production. When it’s not creatively necessary to have a brand in a shot, best to eliminate it. Similar rules apply for artwork, which can also require releases.
Music rights can be a dangdiddlydo of record label bureaucracy and runarounds. Music libraries save the hassle and there are many online sources from paid subscriptions to free databases where artists put up their songs as public domain. Licensing a particular song, especially a well-known one, requires more diligence and money, and a good amount of research to make sure you’ve attained all of the needed rights, such as master, synchronization, composition and performance.
Crew should have a basic start paperwork package, complete with a deal memo stating their rate and credit (or a volunteer deal memo if that’s the case), plus a W-9 or W-2 and I-9. If the subject matter you are covering is sensitive, a nondisclosure agreement may also be helpful.
Insurance. There are three main types that might be needed: Production insurance, workman’s comp and errors and omissions. Production insurance covers gear, rental cars (in most cases) and locations, and is often required for permits and equipment rental. Workman’s comp requirements vary widely by state, but are oh-so vital to follow. Obviously you want to protect the wellbeing of your crew, but beyond that, I’ve seen a lack of it lead to life-changing consequences for producers, including lawsuits, enormous hospital bills and even the threat of felony prison time. When you research policies, make sure they include independent contractors and volunteers. Errors and omissions insurance is a distribution requirement, indemnifying you and the distributor from content, copyright, libel and similar lawsuits.
Investor agreements clearly state the arrangement between the
project and any investors. Whether or not they are needed for distribution,
they are a very good idea to get into place before accepting
any investment money.
Producer and director contracts and LLC operating agreements are often overlooked. It’s so easy to think, “I’m making this project with my best friends; we would never need these.” Sadly, many a solid friendship has collapsed over the course of a project. Spell out these agreements early on, because if things start to sour, the lack of these can put the whole project in jeopardy.
Copyright filing. Distributors will want proof of ownership of the project, and usually this is in the form of a Form PA from the U.S. Copyright Office. Depending on your situation the owner will vary, but often it goes in the name of the project LLC.
Production forms. A few other organizational bits that can be useful to have on hand during a shoot are crew and cast lists, mileage logs, safety meeting worksheets and petty cash and per diem sign out sheets. ♦
-Karuna Eberl produced Hollywood features, directed outdoor documentaries and worked on non-scripted programming for networks including National Geographic Channel, Discovery and NBC Sports — until recently, when she left the hectic pace and paperwork behind to pursue a more human life of writing, photography and marine upholstery work with her guy, Steve, in the Florida Keys. If you need any of these forms, feel free to email her at

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