By: The NBI Team
Thursday, May 21, 2020
Asked & Answered: Breaking into Entertainment Law
Q: In a typical day, what type of work do you do?A: It varies—the interesting thing about entertainment law is that it’s essentially just business law with an oftentimes more exciting product, and my day-to-day work really depends on where the client is in their production cycle.
For example, I might be working with client who is at the beginning of their project. Maybe they have a script in place and interested investors, but they need to form a company. Sometimes clients will already have investment, or a finished product, and need advice on contracts like distribution agreements. There’s not a strict daily regimen and a lot of it comes down to client management and providing services to meet client needs at a particular point in time.
Q: What are your favorite aspects of practicing in entertainment law?A: I love starting at the beginning with a client if possible, and that would be true for start-up companies as well. I love working with partners on formation and hashing out the operating agreement. At the beginning of a film, everyone is excited about getting their project going, and I am the kind of lawyer who loves working with people when they are at their optimistic best. That’s really my favorite thing.
I’m very excited when my clients find success and when their film gets a distribution deal and gets seen by an audience. I particularly like the partnership and growth aspects of my practice—and of course, I love being entertained, too.
Q: Maybe you could share a little bit about a recent project that you found particularly exciting or engaging?A: One thing I want to stress for attorneys who may be interested in entertainment law is,
There is almost always someone, somewhere doing an interesting project that has great ambitions about where it might be distributed and can fund it.
It’s those unexpected projects with vision, funding and global ambition that don’t come from a studio or a well-known production company that I like the most. Equally, I love independent films that are scrappy, and maybe not well funded, but punch well above their weight. Because even though you’ve been in the grind with the filmmakers and know exactly what their resources and budget were, you get to see on the big screen and think, ‘holy cow that was fantastic’.
I work with clients that are making films for art and recognition and career advancement. I also work with clients making films for social purpose. They’re all exciting and engaging to me.
Q: What are some of the most challenging parts of your practice?A: I think this is true for most attorneys, but just to know that you’re providing the best possible guidance for your clients, particularly when you’re working with independent producers because there are so many challenging variables in terms of budget and fundraising and how to get to that next level. You want to give the best value and you know it can sometimes be a stretch to include legal fees.
I don’t find entertainment law more challenging than any other area of law. Some of the good challenges include staying on top of trends, what’s happening in the industry, being aware and constantly educating yourself.
Q: What advice would you give to newer attorneys looking to break into film or music law?A: Understand the industry as much as possible. So, if you’re interested in representing filmmakers, read trade publications. Read Variety, Hollywood Reporter or Deadline—It doesn’t mean you’ll land a client with a $100 million production budget, but you’ll get familiar with the industry and you’ll understand the deal points within the industry.
Also, try to get your hands on as many contracts as you can. You can download agreements from SAG-AFTRA which will help you understand the issues in any agreement. Poking around in a forms library will help you wrap your head around the scope of services you can offer.
Q: In terms of substantive legal skills, what subsets of the law are important to your practice, and what would you recommend for attorneys trying to build these skills?A: Most issues fall into three categories, business law, contracts and intellectual property. All of the content that is being produced is intellectual property – so understanding the rights and value associated with that intellectual property is a must. Once you have a grasp on rights and value, you can better help clients in terms of protecting or exploiting their IP.
The business issues parallel many of the same issues start-ups face, you’re just hitting them on a different timeline – if you’re making a film with funding in place, start to finish could be about 18 months, whereas a start-up has different phases that are similar but not quite the same fast trajectory. And like start-ups, film production’s business issues extend beyond just formation; its employment issues, its taxes, its dealing with revenue flow and finding resources like payroll and vendors.
Q: What professional or business skills are essential in entertainment law?A: Being a good negotiator is very important. Like any attorney, you need to zealously advocate for your clients and get the best possible deal. Marketing skills are also important, and it’s a challenge in any area of law, but you do need to figure out… where are my clients? How can I find them? And how can I let them know who I am?
Once you get started, you’d be surprised how well word of mouth works. Knowing how to present yourself and finding the right opportunities to speak at events or on panels is critical. Relationship building is paramount in this industry, perhaps more so than others. And being really flexible—you have to know how to not just do one thing—you have to advocate from many different avenues and perspectives.
Also, particularly where states don’t have film incentives in place, having some lobbying skills in your back pocket can be beneficial. It never hurts to talk to local elected representatives about the value of having film production in your state, the kind of jobs it brings and the economic impact. Being able to speak on these topics intelligently is always helpful and can help move the film production needle in your area.
Don’t be afraid to add this area to your practice. If it’s something you’re thinking about and you’re not really sure about how to get started, contacting the state local film office will help you determine the actual amount of work being done in your area.
Q: Do you have to move to Nashville or Los Angeles to get started?A: I do not think so! There is so much production going on outside of California that it really isn’t necessary to move there. We are at a—I would like to say it’s the pinnacle, but it probably isn’t—we are finding that there are so many more streaming outlets and distribution possibilities, particularly internet distribution possibilities—and culturally we obviously have an endless appetite for being entertained.
Content production is at an all-time high, and many states have pretty aggressive film incentive programs to lure production to their states. For example, the Atlanta, Georgia area has an astounding amount of production and an astounding number of permanent studios there, like Tyler Perry Studios and Pinewood Studios. The Avengers Movies and the Walking Dead were also made there.
As an attorney, you might not jump right into that kind of representation, but that kind of work just spins into more projects. The same can be said for New Mexico—Breaking Bad was there, then Better Call Saul was there, and now Netflix and NBC Universal have production hubs set up there. Illinois has tons of production and Oregon is doing very well in the Northwest. Production is going on everywhere and I think it’s great—It makes for a more interesting end project as well, to have voices and projects coming from somewhere else.
I would say the same thing about music, which I think is even more democratized than film: every city has music, every city has venues and every city has live theater. And for all of these places doing all of these things, they need attorneys. I think a lot of people producing content regionally would prefer to work with a regional attorney.
Prior to becoming an attorney, Katrina worked professionally for two decades in film and video production and media management. As an attorney, she concentrates on business formations, intellectual property (copyright, trademarks, and trade dress registrations), and entertainment law. She most enjoys working with clients who are builders, creatives, innovators, and entrepreneurs, the type that inspire her daily. Katrina’s mission is providing clients with the best legal foundation for them to grow their business and fulfill their ambitions. In her spare time, Katrina loves movies, music, reading, writing, sports, traveling, filmmaking, photography, and engaging in robust discussion about all of the above.