by Angela Bourassa
At the recent ScriptFest in Burbank, entertainment lawyer Larry Zerner was on hand to guide new writers through the complicated legal issues surrounding screenwriting. He had a lot of helpful insights on option agreements, steering clear of libel lawsuits, and recommended reading for screenwriters (check out his book list at the bottom).
Larry also had a lot to say about the collaboration agreement – a written document signed by both you and your writing partner that stipulates the terms of your partnership.
Now, you may be thinking, “My writing partner and I met in high school. We’ve been best friends since puberty… There’s no way we need a contract.”
If your writing partner really is your best friend, then hopefully you’ll never need to rely on your collaboration agreement, but it’s still important to have one. And if you write on a team of three or more people, or your partner is someone you just met, then you really, really need one.
Let’s go over some of the points that should be covered in your agreement, all of which should make it clear why this piece of paper is so important.
1. THE DIVISION OF LABOR
Very few writing partnerships are actually 50/50 splits. Often one person is the one who is actually writing, and that can make a big difference in the energy and creative input invested. So rather than get into fights down the line about who’s not pulling their weight, put down on paper what you will expect from each other. It might be a commitment to a certain work schedule or to a certain number of writing hours per week, separately or together. Maybe one of you will be responsible for the first draft and the other for the first rewrite. Whatever works for you, write it down.
2. THE MONEY SPLIT
If the division of labor isn’t equal, should the money be? Maybe, maybe not. Whatever the answer is, better to figure it out before you have an offer on the table. You’ll probably decide on a percentage split, but you might also include factors like costs incurred during the writing process, i.e. who paid for the office? or who paid for the research trip?
3. WHO OWNS THE IDEA
If you simply can’t see eye to eye on a script and go your separate ways, who gets to keep working on the script, if anyone? Technically, ideas can’t be owned, but the notes and script pages and recorded brainstorming sessions you had with your partner absolutely can be.
4. WHAT HAPPENS IN CASE OF DEATH, ACCIDENT, OR COMPLICATION
If one partner dies, becomes seriously ill, or has some other sort of life event that prevents them from working on the project anymore, what happens? Does the other partner get to continue working on the project? Does the partner who drops out still get a percentage of the sale?
5. WHO HAS FINAL SAY ON THE DEAL?
Does one partner have veto rights, or do you both have to agree before accepting an option or sale agreement? Who is the deciding factor?
6. WHO’S NAME GOES FIRST?
This one may seem silly, and it is, but that doesn’t mean people don’t fight about it. Figure out what order your names go in early on to avoid frustrating fights down the line.
Once you’ve figured all of this out, write it down, date it, and sign it. If you want to be on the safe side, get it notarized or talk to an entertainment lawyer.
Learn more about Larry Zerner and get answers to your basic screenwriting legal questions by visiting his website or tweeting him. And, as promised, here is Larry’s list of recommended reading for every screenwriter’s legal/business education:
- The Writer Got Screwed – on the legal aspect of screenwriting
- Writing Movies for Profit – on the business of writing movies
- Adventures in the Screen Trade – classic look at Hollywood in the 60s, 70s, and 80s
- Breakfast With Sharks – great book about dealing with agents and managers
- Down and Dirty Pictures – on the Weinsteins and the rise of the independent film