When Does an Actor Need a Lawyer?

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So you book a job, your agent sends over the contract or deal memo, and suddenly it hits you: Should I have a lawyer look at this before I sign?

It’s a simple question, but the answer is more complex than one might imagine. After all, agents understand deals—they negotiate them. A lawyer brings a deeper knowledge of the details and the capability to negotiate those details, but that knowledge comes with a price: Most entertainment lawyers charge talent 5 percent, while some are available at hourly rates of $300 an hour and up. Is an attorney always necessary?

Some lawyers we spoke to said yes. 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.”

Attorney Irwin Rappaport, who represents producers, says, “It’s always best to have a lawyer involved for the sake of protecting the actor’s interests, giving a perspective that the manager and/or agent might not have, and establishing a relationship of trust between lawyer and client that hopefully will only grow as the actor’s career develops.”

Production company lawyer Dina Appleton concurred, 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 always warranted. Such deals include series deals and multiyear movie or commercial deals.

A talent lawyer at one of the top boutiques agreed: “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 makes a difference too. Said Appleton, “If the role is one of the leads or a major supporting role, then [an attorney] may also be able to procure additional benefits/fees and limit what rights are being given away.” A lawyer is also important, she said, if the role requires nudity, the client is a minor, or the job is non-guild.

Money also matters. Another studio lawyer told Backstage that “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. Not all talent agencies have lawyers available to their clients, in which case the performer will need to hire his own counsel, which may not make economic sense for deals under $20,000 or so.

A lawyer at a major agency suggested two other circumstances that call for an attorney: if the actor is being offered a net or gross percentage participation or if the actor is not a U.S. citizen (tax and immigration issues arise).

If you’re about to sign with an agent or, especially, a manager, you should have the representation agreement reviewed by a lawyer. 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 unfair.

If you’re producing your own projects, you need a lawyer. Acquiring rights; hiring writers, directors, cast, and crew; clearing music; and negotiating with digital or physical distributors are not DIY tasks.

Finally, if a deal seems confusing or something feels wrong, that too is a time to get a lawyer. After all, it’s your career—protect it!

Jonathan Handel is an entertainment attorney and a contributing editor to The Hollywood Reporter. Visit jhandel.com.