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An Independent Producer’s Guide to Intellectual Property 

Original publish date: May 25, 2023

In the entertainment industry, a good idea is everything. A great one can make a career. Today, we are in a climate that puts the focus on intellectual property (IP), artistic works defined as “creations of the mind” which are protected by copyright laws.

IP plays a crucial role in negotiations, attracting funding for production, marketing, and distribution. The benefits of using established IP in film production are extensive, especially to indie films. While it may seem that studios hold all the cards when it comes to acquiring big properties, independent filmmakers can uncover countless treasures if they just look in the right places. 

What are the advantages of adapting intellectual property? 

Proven intellectual properties can improve a film’s chances of success by attracting capital, increasing the likelihood of a sale, and cutting expenses.

Established IP provides financiers with confidence that their investment can yield rewards by indicating a project’s value through tangible elements like attached talent and name recognition. Distributors benefit from established IP, as it eases marketing and attracts a built-in audience, reducing financial risks. Additionally, IP helps cut costs in development by providing a baseline for adaptation.

Producers can increase project value and decrease financial risk by producing films based on data-supported material. This is where the practice of assembling film packages comes into play. 

What is a film package? 

A film package is a collection of elements that are integral to getting a film off the ground, such as actors, directors, and scripts. Film productions are funded based on their potential to generate revenue. Enter: packaging, a process of bundling projects with specific talent and circumstances. This can attract funding and open doors for production. Since most sought-after intellectual properties have a built-in audience, they have proven value that can elevate a project’s prospects.

What is the best intellectual property for independent producers to adapt? 

Things like webcomics, podcasts, eBooks, news articles, and blogs hold untapped value for independent producers. While intellectual property can take many forms, including more high-profile items like books, video games, and toys, it can be expensive to acquire, so you might consider expanding your portfolio with lesser known works that still have a proven audience.

Independent producers can find potential properties that have yet to find mainstream exposure by attending conventions, exploring democratized creation tools, and doing research.

Many self-published artists are speaking to audiences they’ve already cultivated on platforms like Tapas, Amazon, or Spotify. Try citing reviews, reads, and listens while seeking properties that have been missed by the mainstream.

Small theatrical productions, literary magazines, online collections, and newspaper / magazine articles can all be sources for untapped stories, but be cautious of rights issues and the potential loss of value for stories that are too small. Public domain titles can provide value, but research is necessary to avoid trademark infringement. 

How do I acquire intellectual property? 

Obtaining valuable intellectual property is the critical first step in getting a production off the ground. Typically, one of two common agreements is used in this acquisition process: an option agreement or a shopping agreement.

Both agreements are contracts between the owner of an established property and a producer or production company. Producers with experience will seek to secure as many potentially marketable assets as possible in order to increase their chances of getting a green light on at least one.  

Option agreements 

An option agreement grants a limited time and specified price for a producer to purchase exclusive rights to a work. This gives them time to develop a script and raise production funds.

If they proceed, they pay the full price and must determine which rights they intend to purchase (e.g., theatrical, streaming, broadcast) and whether they have the right to produce future seasons or sequels.

If cameras are not rolling in 5-7 years, all rights revert to the original owner. 

Shopping agreements 

A shopping agreement gives producers the right to pitch and raise funds for a film adaptation, without making or losing money until it’s sold.

It typically lasts 9-18 months and may limit the producer’s control over the process. Exclusive contracts are shorter but carry the risk of a rights owner selling the rights separately, leaving the producer with no legal recourse. 

Which agreement is better, an option or shopping agreement? 

Knowing which of these agreements is right for a production largely depends on the needs and goals of both the producer and the rights owner.

Do you want more time to develop a film, or would you prefer to minimize risk and allow for greater flexibility?

One thing that these two options have in common: the need for an experienced legal counsel to be involved in the negotiations. By including someone with this skill, a contract can be reached that meets the needs of everyone involved. 

Bottom line: acquiring intellectual property may increase your chances of success

Acquiring rights to intellectual property with street cred can be crucial for a successful film. However, before making promises to every hungry writer or creator, understand the differences between option and shopping agreements and secure legal counsel. Adding this element to your team may lead to a successful enterprise. By supplementing your talented team with established intellectual property, you can jump-start a project and avoid many of the most common production pitfalls.

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