Legal QuestionsNo Entertainment Lawyer? We Asked 5 Questions for You
May 18, 2021
Seattle-based entertainment lawyer Matthew Dresden got his start as an assistant to prolific producer-director Roger Corman (known for giving Ron Howard, Martin Scorcese, James Cameron, and more their Hollywood start). He knows what it is to cut your teeth as an independent filmmaker: “I love movies,” says Dresden, “That’s why I went to work in Hollywood. That’s why I went to UCLA instead of other law schools. I wanted to help independent filmmakers achieve their vision.”
We sat with Dresden to ask some high-level questions on behalf of independent filmmakers — especially those who’ve never worked with an entertainment lawyer:
What are some misconceptions about entertainment lawyers?
We’ve all heard horror stories... “There’s a misconception that all Hollywood lawyers yell on the phone and are jerks and are terrible to deal with," says Dresden, "But there are a lot of good lawyers out there.” And we'd wager Dresden is one of them: “Part of how I see my role as a lawyer working with independent filmmakers is to be a resource for them. I’m not just responding to their questions, I’m also anticipating them.”
When is the right time to hire an entertainment lawyer?
Entertainment lawyers can be useful at almost every point in your production (contracts, liability, distribution, and more)! But at the very least, Dresden says it’s essential to have a lawyer on your side when money is involved. “At the point when you’re taking money from other people, you need a lawyer. [...] You’re basically saying, ‘Give me some money, and you may or may not get a return.’ They’re investing in your ‘company.’ And [that process is] regulated by really strict securities laws.”
What’s one mistake independent filmmakers (without entertainment lawyers) make?
Other than not hiring a lawyer soon enough (prevention > damage control), Dresden says a major mistake is not forming an LLC (a limited liability company), which will ‘limit’ your ‘liability,’ should any legal issues arise (injuries, etc.). ”Every movie is basically a startup company, and that’s a helpful way to think about it. When you’re engaging with vendors and distributors, they expect it. It’s not a person they’re dealing with; they want a company.”
What’s the pay structure for an entertainment lawyer? Do they only bill hourly?
Legal fees can certainly inspire sticker shock. But Dresden says, “There are almost as many ways to bill as you can imagine. Yes, most entertainment lawyers bill hourly. But many, myself included, will work on a flat fee basis.” The most important thing, he points out, is to set clear expectations on both sides. Other pay structures include deferred compensation, profit participation, or producer credit.
What should an emerging filmmaker look for in an entertainment lawyer?
Searching for your entertainment lawyer might seem daunting — but it doesn't have to be. "You want someone who can be empathetic to what indie filmmakers' concerns are and what their concerns ought to be," says Dresden, "Find someone who meshes with your personality, meshes with your world and wants to support that. It ought to be a relationship."
And that relationship, Dresden says, is worth cultivating (for both parties). “To have a through-line of someone who’s a legal professional and aware of your history and context from other work you’ve done, is really useful to filmmakers. Not just a sharp-shooter or mercenary type of lawyer, but rather like a teammate.”
If you’re interested in a legal consultation with Dresden, please email him at [email protected].
And if you have questions about entertainment law — and how it might impact your movies — join Seed&Spark’s Lunch&Learn: Legal Advice for Independent Filmmakers this Wednesday 5/19 at 12p PT / 3p ET.