After booking a job in the entertainment industry, your agent will send over a contract or deal memo. At this point, you may wonder: Should I seek the advice of an entertainment lawyer before signing? While agents are skilled at negotiating deals, an entertainment lawyer brings a deeper understanding of the specifics involved and can negotiate those details on your behalf. The high cost to hire an entertainment lawyer may make you hesitant, but it’s almost always a good idea to have professional legal counsel.
An entertainment lawyer is a legal professional who specializes in—you guessed it—the entertainment industry. Entertainment lawyers provide legal counsel and representation for industry professionals, including actors, writers, and directors.
Entertainment lawyers strive to protect their clients’ rights, argue for fair compensation, and help them navigate the industry’s often-complicated landscape. In particular, entertainment lawyers assist with:
- Contracts: negotiating for better compensation, ensuring contract legality, and reviewing the final form before signing
- Intellectual property: protecting your copyrights and trademarks
- Talent representation: working with talent agencies and publishing companies
- Litigation and dispute: mediating and resolving any issues that may arise
If you find yourself in any of these scenarios, it may be time to lawyer up:
Whenever you need to sign a contract. One studio lawyer recommends, “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 concurs, 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 tempers 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.”
If the deal has long-term ramifications. 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.
When you get your first studio film. A talent lawyer at one of the top boutiques agrees: “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 adds, “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.”
If negotiating exclusivity. A studio lawyer says, “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.”
When playing bigger roles. The size and nature of the role makes a difference, too. Says 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 says, if the role requires nudity, the client is a minor, or the job is non-guild.
When earning the big bucks. Money also matters. Another studio lawyer tells Backstage that “actors who are about to be engaged for their first SAG Schedule F deal for a theatrical feature are at the stage of their careers where it makes sense to use a lawyer.” Prior to that point, he says, 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.
If offered a percentage or if not a U.S. citizen. A lawyer at a major agency suggests 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).
Upon signing with an agent or manager. 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 producing your own projects. 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.
If legalese leaves you confused. 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!
If you’ve decided that it’s time to get an entertainment lawyer, the next step is finding one you want to work with. Follow these steps to find the right lawyer for you:
1. Request referrals: Talk to other professionals in the industry, such as agents, managers, and other entertainers, to see if they can recommend an entertainment lawyer.
2. Use online directories: Sites such as Justia, LawInfo, and the Nolo Lawyer Directory can help connect you with a lawyer based on location and specialty. You can then cross-reference specific lawyers with review sites such as SuperLawyers and Yelp.
3. Network: Attending industry networking events and conferences can be a good way to feel out if you vibe with your hoped-for representatives.
4. Schedule a consultation: Once you’ve come up with a list of prospective entertainment lawyers you’d like to work with, schedule a consultation to ensure they’re a good fit for you and your legal needs. Come to the meeting prepared with a breakdown of why you need legal counsel and a list of questions about the lawyer’s experience with entertainment law and the industry; legal issues they’ve dealt with in the past; their expertise on your specific issues; and their fees and payment information.
5. Hire: If you feel that you’ve found the right lawyer, hire them and set up payment using one of the following methods.
The cost of entertainment lawyer services can range from 5% of your talent fee to hourly rates starting at $300, depending on your location, the services you require, and the lawyer’s experience. Lawyers may charge:
By the hour: “Some entertainment attorneys will give you an hour of their time—à la carte—for a fee, often between about $350 per hour to $600 or more per hour. The closer to L.A., New York, or other major cities, generally the higher the hourly fee,” says entertainment lawyer Gano Lemoine.
By retainer: Sometimes lawyers will ask for a retainer matching what they’d charge for a few hours of their time. The lawyer bills time to the retainer.
As a fixed fee: “Some legal work is relatively straightforward, and therefore the time and effort involved [is] more easily knowable,” Lemoine explained. “For these types of things, for example a single contract or formation of an LLC or corporation, an entertainment attorney may charge a fixed fee. The fee will again vary depending on the location and complexity of the project.”
By percentage: Some entertainment lawyers may work for a percentage of your total earnings, much like an agent or manager.
As production counsel: Fully funded films might hire entertainment lawyers in the form of a production counsel that takes care of the film’s full array of legal needs.