No one likes the court system. No one likes to be sued or have to be taken to court. It's not fun and it's time consuming. But sometimes in this tricky business, we run into things beyond our control.
Many years ago before I traveled abroad, I visited the Prince George's Community College in Largo and spoke with a young, ambitious filmmaker. About a year later, we spoke about our respective lives and careers.
His advice: In filmmaking, always have a contract.
As he put it, he directed a short film only with a verbal agreement and steady handshake. Once the film was completed, however, the producer decided that he would take the project to another editor. When the film was in editing, the producer made changes in the storyline, which changed how the film would be perceived.
The producer then claimed he directed the movie. Alhough the actual filmmaker had every right to claim the title as "director," his battle would be tough due to him not having any contracts. This doesn’t mean as a filmmaker he's not capable of handling the paperwork, but in the midst of getting “hired” for someone else's project, it seemed like the thing to do. I used “hired” in quotations because this filmmaker did not get paid for this gig. If there was an exchange of funds, he would have a more solid ground and paper trail.
As an artist, it is not the money that holds us to a project but rather the passion and drive to complete the film and present it to masses. The excitement, intensity, passion, and drive can be put into overseeing a contract and/or trusting word of mouth. These things happen especially when you're a young filmmaker.
The moral of this story was enlightening, and it provided more foresight into the mistakes young filmmakers make when they are beginning their careers. In this case, the filmmaker thought there was a “friendship” factor in the relationship and figured the producer would never go back on his word.
There are no friends in business. He had to learn this the unfortunate way to truly understand. While there is nothing wrong with being cordial, there is a line that does not need to be crossed for the sake of business or the project.
All filmmakers at some point should take contracts seriously. In this field a lot of things are done on the "honor system." And even if there is no payment involved, a contractual agreement allows the filmmaker to focus solely on the project.
Moral of this story: Have it in writing.