Business Of Film Making: Deal Points for Producers and Screenwriters

Ololade Oloniyo, Entertainment Lawyer & Partner, The Starfield LP (Article & Photo: Ololade Oloniyo)

Africa has yet proven itself once again, that its’ capable of creating genuine stories that reflect our culture, pride, heritage and values. With the surge and increase of amazing stories from South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt and Morocco, Africa film makers have moved beyond production of old tales, to creating beautiful stories that bring pride to the continent. 

Undoubtedly, the film industry in Nigeria is a gold mine. With over 200 million people, Nollywood is the country’s second largest employer, and this means that the opportunities that exist for producers and screenwriters are limitless! 

Recently, according to the National Film and Video Censors Board (NFVCB), Nollywood alone has produced 533 movies in the second quarter of 2022. These are exciting times for creatives in the entertainment sector, and there is no other better time than now, to tap into the opportunities that exist in the space. 

The entertainment industry is largely regulated by bye-laws, code of conducts amongst industry practitioners, association ethics etc. However, one of the most effective ways to regulate business transactions in the industry is through contracts. Contractual obligations carefully outlined and written out, can either make or break a film project. From the initial creation of IP, to development, post development, exhibition and distribution, each person is required to execute a task and such roles definitely constitute a business relationship that should be regulated by contracts. Therefore, in order to avoid legal and business risks, entertainment contracts are required to effectively manage stakeholders and it plays a huge role in making a successful movie.  

The film making process begins with a stern negotiation between an existing studio or producer and screenwriter, as there can be no blockbuster movies without a professional screenwriter. Most times, screen writers are usually hired by the executive producers to write compelling stories with intriguing characters, and it is important that screen writers know the major deal points for negotiation during this process. Screen writing is a professional business and must be approached that way. Without a screen-writer, there can be no movie, and so its important that screenwriters work with entertainment lawyers for their TV and Film projects. 

Also Read: Navvi Arudem is redefining the African gaming culture

As a screenwriter, are you aware of how to protect yourself if the producer buys your script, but never makes a movie out of it?  Do you know what two important provisions you should negotiate and will get, if you ask for them? Are you aware of what payments you can get if the studio produces a sequel picture or a television series based on your script, if you ask for it? 

It is also important to have a good understanding of how copyright protection allows you to exploit your intellectual property well and make more money from your script. By copyrighting your script or story, you can exploit, protect and enforce your right over your creative work when there is an infringement. 

Reversion rights help you to protect yourself and career, if the producer buys your script, but never makes a movie out of it. This right helps you to get your property back and assume full ownership rights over it. Smart screen writers would negotiate that they have reserved rights in publication rights (print, electric, audio-book) radio, live stage, live television etc. You could also consider getting some profit share in merchandising or other exploitation of your scripts. 

Sequels, which is also referred to as the remake rights, is one of the smartest things that you can negotiate for as a screenwriter. Here, you grant the producer only a “one picture license”. This ultimately means that the right to use that story for another production is reserved, unless the producer is offered a right of first negotiation, then he can make a new release of the original motion picture. 

If you decide to write with someone else, you should work out a collaboration agreement with that person before you begin writing, unless you don’t mind that your writing partner will have rights equal to yours in connection with your joint work. The presumption with any joint work is that the collaborators are co-owners of the joint work, unless otherwise specified. If on the other-hand, you own the story and the collaborator helped you with the script, you might want to negotiate upfront, how much compensation you want for owning the story. 

Many times, collaboration deals amongst writers can be very messy, so it’s important to think of all the possible problems that might occur in the future and address them all in the collaboration agreement. 

Suppose he/she is not available at the time. Will you be able to write without him? If you do all the rewriting yourself, will you be able to keep all of the compensation for the rewrite or will your partner expect a piece? What happens if there are irreconcilable differences and you cannot work together? These are samples of issues that should be considered while drafting a writers collaboration agreement.

On the other hand, executive producers are constantly dealing and negotiating with direct and digital distribution agencies in order to retain the profits or share receipts from their movies, maintain control over distribution and maximize value for all stakeholders and investors. At this stage, distribution agreements are important, and understanding how to optimize distribution contracts to realize all potential profits is important to executive producers. 

It is important to engage with agents and attorneys that have a robust understanding of the distribution landscape. Producers ought to know what rights they choose to release to distributors and which they would not be giving out. Ideally, an attorney should assist with this process, review all agreements and ensure that there is proper communication amongst all stakeholders, to ensure that there are no breaches or legal risks incurred during the transaction.  

Executive producers ought to get a sense of what sub-distribution and distribution fees are deducted from the gross revenue.  Sometimes, producers can adopt the approach of using mini-distribution platforms that have a proven record of success in the past. This allows for more profit maximization in addition to the traditional or streaming incomes that is gotten from the box office and the likes of Netflix. Other important deal points for distribution agreements are sub-licensing rights, royalties and fee structuring, marketing control, relevant territories, terms of distribution, reserved rights to producers, and distributors commitments or guarantees. 

Remember that the film industry is a business, and your story or film is a product. So be very clear on establishing what rights you should be giving away either as a screen writer or producer, engage with professionals to help you see the bigger picture of your movie and to find creative ways to monetize your intellectual property.  Given the fact that it’s really expensive to make a film, don’t ignore the importance of negotiating on deal points that allows you to make profit and earn as much as you can on your film business. 

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