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Topic: Advice needed: feature contract

  1. #1

    Advice needed: feature contract

    Hey there, I have a few questions: I'm being considered to score an indie feature-length film and I'm not sure if it is time to involve a lawyer. And if I need one, where do I find one? The filmmakers don't have much money, only about $500 or so to pay for music services, and I only have about four weeks to deliver. It stands to reason that I should negotiate for some kind of royalty if the film gets distribution, is there a rational percentage to ask for? How does one approach this? Since most of you write music professionally, any advice you can offer is welcome.


  2. #2

    Re: Advice needed: feature contract

    I think the first question for me with indie films is whether it has a chance of being distributed -- if not, then your chance of making any money is probably very low. If this is your first feature, you may be looking at it as a learning experience, since you basically are investing in their film by giving your time and creativity.

    If the film is terrible, you should ask whether it's even worth bothering; nobody cares to look at a whole film as a demo unless it's awesome. Generally, I find it hard to get people just to listen to an audio CD, much less a film clip, so if that's one of your goals, you might consider scoring a student film instead, if there's a film program at a university near you.

    In effect, at that amount, you are investing $25k into their movie, which is about the going rate for an all-synth score in a very low budget production, assuming the usual 45-65 minutes of music. Accordingly, like any other investor, you could consider asking for a stake in the movie -- not a royalty but an actual (but passive) ownership stake.

    If that's not in the cards, you should at least get the following:

    1. Main title credit, similar size and duration to that of the director of photography
    2. Full ownership of the music -- most good composers wouldn't even consider doing a project below $25k without this, even if it had distribution. This means you give them a license to use the music in any and all versions of the picture and advertising (trailers) perpetually, but that you own the music and the master recordings, including any derivative works.
    3. A copy of the film
    4. The right to use images, stills or short clips from the film to promote the music that you wrote for the film.

    Good luck.
    Kind regards,


  3. #3
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Jan 2006
    Ft. Lauderdale

    Re: Advice needed: feature contract

    John, I know this is off the topic but, your music on your site is simply fanastic. Amazing talent. Joseph

  4. #4

    Re: Advice needed: feature contract

    JohnG, thanks for the great reply. Very helpful. Hard to know the difference in the indie world between "bad" and "undistributable" because I've seen some pretty awful (read: unwatchable) films that managed to get distribution. Based on my experience this has a pretty good chance of getting some straight-to-DVD love.

    I've drawn up a non-exclusive license agreement for the short films I've done, which basically says that I keep the music, but that they can use it in perpetuity as long as they own the film. If they sell it, then whomever buys it can renegotiate. But I think in this case, the numbers or percentages should be part of the contract itself. I've never really thought about it before, since selling a short is nothing short of a miracle it seems.

    Thank you mech289! The site is a culmination of a lot of work hours, so it is very kind of you to take a moment to listen.

  5. #5

    Re: Advice needed: feature contract

    they need to be able to transfer the sync license to the buyer or it will cause problems. Trying to insinuate a renegotiation in there is going to be a total hassle for them.
    Kind regards,


  6. #6

    Re: Advice needed: feature contract

    i just signed on for my first feature so i did a fair amount of research on contracts and rights recently.

    1. this book has sample contracts:
    Film and Television Composer's Resource Guide by Mark Northam and Lisa Ann Miller
    it'll give you an idea of how contracts are worded, and the basics of what to look for regarding rights, sync licenses etc.

    2. if they're offering you $500 when the film's total budget is $200k, tell them to take a hike. if possible, find out what the total budget for the film is, and base your fee on a percentage of that total. a decent music budget could be upward of 8% of the total production budget but that includes all music considerations: composer fee, production costs, licensing of preexisting songs, music supervisor fees, etc. i've been told to expect 3-5% of a film's total budget as a decent composer's/producer's fee. in my situation i'm getting a good percentage, and in addition since its a low budget film with a good chance of turning a profit (the producer was nominated for an academy award this year) i negotiated a cut of the back end.

    3. keep as much ownership as possible...with a low budget film they should have no problem letting you keep full ownership and publishing rights. what you are doing is licensing them the right to use your music in the film, and in that respect their rights should be absolute. as johng says, the sync rights need to transfer along with the film no matter what...no producer is going to like the possibility of having to renegotiate any portion of their completed film. the license has to specify that once the music is synced to picture, its there for good. retaining your rights simply means that the producers have no control over the music if you want to do anything else with it like release a soundtrack album, license the music to someone else, etc.

    4. re: lawyers. if you're looking at a $500 fee and that's it, then you're probably fine without a lawyer. but if you see any potential for the film to turn a decent profit down the line (i.e. they have a good track record for getting distro for dvds, had a film that got a theatrical run, etc), a lawyer me be able to advise you on the way to get some sort of profit share.

    good luck with the negotiations...

  7. #7

    Re: Advice needed: feature contract

    Thank you JohnG and scientist for your invaluable help. I'm going to print this thread and keep it under my pillow--I guess that will make me dream of my next contract?

    I think their entire budget is 100K. I met yesterday and told him that I would need to keep the publishing, and he basically said without hesitating allowing that could inhibit the sale of the film. I'm not sure that he fully understands what delivering 45+ minutes of music in three weeks means. I knew going in this a "for the love of it" kind of project, but I doubt they are going to see it my way. One would think that he would back me up on it, knowing that he's not paying me anything compared to what he's asking. But his only goal is distribution, and nothing can get in the way.

  8. #8

    Re: Advice needed: feature contract

    Good thread and advice. One more vote for these indies - hold on to the publishing and negoiate as high a fee as possible (in most cases this will be the only money you will get). Three reasons to accept any deal:

    1. Experience
    2. Money (paycheck)
    3. Artistic expression (film content and production team is top notch)

    Of course having all three elements 'converge' is ideal (but doing a gig on only 1 or 2 of the list is always a possibility). Just did a 5 min short for 'near free' for item #3 above. Hard to pay the bills doing this time after time but if you have an 'opening' - long term might net you more 'higher paying' work.

    Good luck on your negotiations.

    Rob Elliott Music

  9. #9

    Re: Advice needed: feature contract

    if he's worried about publishing rights inhibiting selling the film then:
    a. he doesn't fully understand publishing rights. or
    b. he's trying to take you for a ride.

    in the case of a. just make sure he understands that a standard license essentially locks your music to picture, and wherever the movie goes so goes the music. publishing has nothing to do with rights over the film, but rather over who gets paid when the film airs under the auspices of PROs. e.g. if the film gets picked up by HBO, everytime it airs HBO looks at the cue sheet that says what songs are in the film, and via ascap pays the writer and publisher for each song aired.

    in the case of b. the producer fully understands what publishing rights are, and as part of his sales pitch is telling prospective buyers "hey you'll get money from the music publishing rights whenever this thing is aired". neither the original producer nor the prospective buyer did anything beyond commissioning the music, yet they want to take half the profits from its performance. yuck.

    big caveat: for larger productions, giving away publishing rights is standard procedure. to me its unethical but it is the way it is, and if you look through ascap's documents regarding publishing they condone the practice. imo, this is a huge failure on the part of publishing rights organizations to protect artist/writer's rights. they're pretty much in the habit of helping out the big boys at the expense of those just starting out.

  10. #10

    Re: Advice needed: feature contract

    They have 100k and spend 500 on music?
    All your strings belong to me!

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