Zack's Declassified Film Survival Guide: Contracts Are Your Friend

Zack is a filmmaker, YouTuber, and creator/host of the webseries “We Have A Show.” He has a MFA in screenwriting and directing from Columbia University. Here he discusses directing techniques for indie filmmakers…some he learned in school, and some he learned the hard way.

Hey, I’m back! Apologies for the radio silence there. The last few weeks have been a little crazy: my thesis film “Everything’s Fine: A Panic Attack in D Major” screened at Lincoln Center, and then there was the whole graduation thing. It was all such a great time and a great way to cap off grad school, but alas, it’s time for the real world to come calling. So here we are.

Today I want to talk something we all try to avoid, yet always in hindsight wish we hadn’t: contracts. Those tiny pieces of paper that state exactly which we already know, but for some reason are too afraid to say out loud. It’s like when the cashier at McDonalds reads your order back so everyone can hear the awful things you’re about to do to your body. Contracts are a very important way to not only protect yourself, they protect your crew members, and I would argue that at the end of the day, your set will become a much more productive…production.

It’s easy to jump into a passion project with a fellow creator. It’s hard to define what that collaboration actually means.

In filmmaking, and especially in episodic narrative, we tend to work with the same people. Most of the time they are our friends. Other times, they’re really cool people we met in some Filmmaking Crew Call 101 Facebook Group. And after one shoot goes really well, it’s like we found our #Squad and now we’re off to the races. I do this all the time. I always work with my friends. I find that it’s like getting the band back together: we all speak the same language, we all work well together; I like to surround myself with people who will lift me up and challenge me to deliver the best product I can. All that is great. But even if the shoot is passion project between friends, you should still sign contracts with one another.

Reason #1: Credit.

Boy oh boy does this always become sticky. I am guilty of breaking this rule in the past, and it’s something I promise to never do again. Anytime you bring someone on to a project, you should define, specifically, his or her job. A lot of times we hire people as “swing” roles, or “catchall” AC/AD/Grip/PA/Driver’s. And I get it. We’re working in Micro Budget Land and therefore have to consolidate roles. But what a contract does for you is allows you to define the role before production starts. By putting it down on paper, you as the director know why this person is there. And that person knows what should (and should not) be asked of them. Credit also becomes an issue after the fact. I’ve been on a set where a crew person asked me to change their title because they went above and beyond the call of duty. And they were objectively correct–they carried more than their share of the weight. In my delirious, sleep deprived, highly emotional state as the director, I entertained the idea and agreed with them. However, I didn’t take into consideration the fact that making that title change would conflict with, and ultimately undermine, another crew person’s job title. It created a sticky situation that could have been avoided had we had everything on paper in front of us from the beginning. My producers advised me to keep things status quo, so I did. But that didn’t leave everyone happy and I blame myself for allowing the situation to occur in the first place.

Reason #2: Pay.

This is another one that becomes an issue among friends. You scratch my back, I’ll shoot your film for free. Exchanging favors is a great way to help your friends out in the beginning of your filmmaking careers. And a lot of great passion projects get done on the cheap. But there comes a time when even the best of friends and collaborators can’t afford to swap favors anymore. The natural progression of this is the “friends and family” day rate. I make sure that I pay as many of my collaborators as I can. There are times when I simply cannot to, but I find that it’s more important to pay someone what you can afford rather than continually asking them to work for free. Showing that small sign of respect towards your collaborator’s craft can go a long way. So even if you’re doing the Mark Duplass “Everyone Gets $100 A Day” thing, you should still put that down in writing with each individual person. Why? Because that way you are guaranteeing your crew members their pay. What happens if you have to scrub a shoot halfway through the day because it starts raining during your entirely-outdoor shoot? What happens if you have to fire a crewmember at lunch? You still called your crew in for a day’s work. So that’s still a day’s worth of $$$. This also protects you in the event that you’re NOT working with friends. If that person starts barking at you for higher pay, you’re now in a strong, legally-binding position to tell them no. On the flip side, it also holds you as the director responsible for slacking off. Are you pushing lunch beyond the 6 hour mark? Are you going into overtime after 12 hours? Giving the crew the authority to get paid more in the event of sloppy filmmaking is just as important as protecting yourself from pay disputes with no good reason.

If you want to cast SAG actors, you need to use (and understand) their contracts. Being on top of your paperwork is a great way to up the value (and the perception) of your production. Also, yes, I’m shooting in my apartment.

Reason #3: Everyone just feels more secure about what they’re doing.

This is kind of a summary of reasons 1 & 2, but I feel it’s important to restate: by using contracts, it creates a sense of security on set. If you’re working on the cheap, and it’s a long hot day in the sun, and there’s the smallest of the smallest of chances that the production is going to tank: the last thing you want is that tiny little Worry Monster to get into your crew’s ears. By laying out the terms of employment on paper, it creates a layer of comfort for the people you are bringing on board. They can focus on doing their jobs instead of worrying about whether or not they’re going to be screwed once the film gets into post. I’ve seen best friends get into fights over things like this, especially in “co-director” or “writer/producer” situations. Who’s going to own the I.P. after the film or web series blows up on the festival circuit or the internet? What happens if you win an award with a cash prize attached? How do we divvy that up? Even among friends, these are conversations that you need to have before you need to have them. Because vague working terms at the beginning of a project will lead to insecurity and outright conflict down the road.

Don’t learn this the hard way like I did.


So much of indie film is just making your project seem more legit than it has any right to be, and it’s honestly not that hard to do! It’s a pain, but it’s so important. And CONGRATS GRAD! :tada::confetti_ball::tada::balloon:

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Haha honestly the ‘fake it till you make it’ method isn’t awful. But it’s more important to follow proper procedure even when you don’t have to. And thanks so much! It’s great to be a real human again.

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Any resources for how to write contracts, role titles, etc.?

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Cool thanks!

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Variety magazine and AFI put out a book “The Complete Film Production Handbook.” They have a whole library of forms and paperwork for various parts of production, which you can download and edit to work for whatever you need. It’s a great resource and a good place to start for sure.

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Awesome, thanks!

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