What is this Chain of Title of which you speak?

Great question and there tends to be some confusion among first time film makers about Chain of Title so don’t feel bad for asking the question.

To put it simply, Chain of Title is the complete set of documents that establishes a persons (and companies are people too) right to take action with respect to a piece of property, in our discussion the property is a film, but can be anything including a passel of land, a building, an automobile, etc.  With any property the chain runs from the present owner back to the original owner of the property in question.

In entertainment, this means a whole slew of documents that establish that a producer/production company owns/controls the right to produce a whatever it is they are trying to create/sell.

The chain of title typically consists of a series of rights agreements between the creators of works on which the production will be based or assembled to create the final product.  OK, that wasn’t so simple, but this list will give you an idea:

  • Copyright registration certificate for any underlying material (ie, the screenplay)
  • Option for right to adapt any underlying work(s) (Stageplay, song, screenplay, life-story rights, etc.)
    • Yes, that means just because you read a book or play that you can’t adapt if for film without permission.  Heck, just because someone is dead still doesn’t give you a clearance to produce their life story.
  • Agreements with anyone (the writer or composer or lyricist or other contributors) hired to adapt the source material
  • Agreements with any additional writers hired to do re-writes, etc.
  • Certificates of authorship from any of those writers
  • Documentation on any option agreements
    • Evidence documenting that the option on the material was properly extended before its expiration
    • Evidence that the option was properly exercised before its expiration.
    • Documents transferring or assigning the rights granted under the option to the producing entity
  • Contracts with creative and production personnel stating that their work-product has been created as a “work-made-for-hire” and therefore belongs to the producer.  Strangely enough, this includes you, the producer.
  • Contracts with performers authorizing the use of their names, likenesses, biographies, etc., in connection with the exploitation of the project.
  • Releases for stock footage used
  • Releases for photographs or artwork used
  • Releases for props used
  • Releases for locations films
  • Releases for any music used in the scoring of the production
  • Crowd/Extra release forms
  • Trademark Clearances for any trademarks used in the film

…and the list can go on, but you get the idea.

A film is an assemblage of many things and you have to prove that you have the right to use ALL OF IT in your film.  Yes, even if you wrote the screenplay yourself.  It may sound silly, but you even need to transfer the rights of the screenplay you wrote to yourself as the producer/production company to have a clean chain of title.

Film distributors won’t agree to distribute a film without complete documentation.  They don’t want to risk getting sued because you used something in your film you didn’t have permission to use.

It’s best to start as early as possible documenting the chain of title.  No one likes to pop-out a release form or go all business-like when they are developing the idea for a production, but, trust me, it gets much more messy and difficult to try and do it later.  When you complete an outline, treatment, screenplay, etc, keep records and register your copyrights.  If you are working with someone else, PLEASE, have a written agreement that details your relationship and addresses ownership of the project.  Great projects have been lost to a fallout between friends and no formal terms on what happens to the work itself.

Oh, and nothing verbal.  It all needs to be in writing.  Its to everyone’s benefit… and you can’t put a verbal agreement in a file.

Yes, ultimately, the chain of title is a big folder containing copies of each and every document we just discussed… in chronological order.  And this documentation will be needed everytime that the project is sold or transferred to someone else.

Now the big question: Do you need an entertainment attorney to do all this for you?  Absolutely not.  You just need to be good at paperwork and organization, or have someone working for you that is.  That doesn’t mean you might not need one to handle certain steps along the journey.  Only a fool has himself for a client.


How do I sell my movie to Netflix or iTunes

Scott Conditt asked: What is your general opinion on the new school independent VOD distribution method versus going to market with your films the traditional distributor route?

Good question, but there are a ton of them out there.  Further questioning he was specifically getting at Netflix and iTunes.  So let’s start there.

iTunes.  iTunes is a great platform and you get a nice piece of the download pie, BUT you can’t currently do it yourself.  Well, you can if you meet their requirements to open your own store.  But the first requirement is (at the time of this posting) “5 feature-length movies or documentaries that were released theatrically (or) 100 feature-length movies or documentaries that were either released theatrically or direct-to-video.”  That rules out most independent film makers.  That doesn’t rule out iTunes, though, just means you will have to go through an aggregator.  An aggregator IS NOT a distributor.  Some aggregators will charge you a fee up front and you make 100% of the take.  Others will take a percentage of the sale price instead.  Some will be a combination of both.  If you think your film is going to sell thousands of downloads at $3 to $5 than paying $1000 to $3000 prep fee might be worth it.  Be realistic and shop around.

There are a slew of iTunes aggregators popping up everywhere.  There are even more out there advertising than on the official list by Apple.  That might mean they are really a distributor that is going through one of the official aggregators, so ask if they aren’t on the official list. Buyer beware.  Do some math.  Run the numbers.  Be realistic and see what happens.

Netflix.  Netflix has been the friend and holy grail of indies for years.  It was a big notch in your belt to say your movie was on Netflix.  So much so that film makers didn’t pay attention to the terms of their deals.  Now, these deals were RARELY with Netflix directly.  It was a sales agent, distributor or aggregator that then licensed to Netflix.  Just like iTunes, its pretty much the only way you are getting your movie on Netflix these days.  Unlike iTunes, its a flat fee, no a pay per view licensing structure.  That means, you get a set amount of money and in return grant a two year license to Netflix to stream your movie online.  Usually this is non-exclusives (meaning you can stream on multiple services).

You’ll read stories about how people only got $1000 for their two year license.  Now, I don’t know the terms of every deal and how it was structured, but have been involved with quite a few Netflix streaming deals.  My guess is those $1000 license fees were 10x (or more) higher, but because of the contract with their sales agent, distributor, or aggregator, that money was allocated to other fees and percentages.

There are also other online streaming services out there.  Most of those are a platform solution but you’ll make money based on how much traffic you drive to your movie.  Its all in the marketing and most of the time that’s completely up to you.  They don’t offer much in terms of promoting your film.  So, as I said above, run the numbers.  I’m going to say, in most cases, if they are just taking a percentage, its worth the chance, but you can’t drive content everywhere, so, again, just run the numbers.


Blockbuster a Bust, DVD Dead?


November 6, 2013 was the first day of the American Film Market for 2013 and on that day Dish Network announced that DVD is dead.

Really all they did was announce that they were closing all their corporate retail stores.  The franchised stores will remain open under the Blockbuster brand (at least until the licensing agreement for those franchise stores runs out).  They are also closing the doors on their DVD by mail operations this December.  They are going to continue offering their Blockbuster On-Demand video streaming service (20,000 or so titles) and Blockbuster Home service for Dish subscribers (basically low-tier pay TV).

“This is not an easy decision, yet consumer demand is clearly moving to digital distribution of video entertainment,” Dish President and CEO Joseph Clayton said in a statement. “Despite our closing of the physical distribution elements of the business, we continue to see value in the Blockbuster brand, and we expect to leverage that brand as we continue to expand our digital offerings.”

If you’ve followed the industry at all you can’t say this writing wasn’t on the wall.  DVD sales have been drying up for the better part of a decade.  Doom and gloom has been being preached about the death of DVD for more than 10 years, but this info graphic will show you when the fall began.  In one year sales of DVD dropped by a third and then continued to fall.historyofdvdYes, those numbers are in BILLIONS (sales figures provided by “The Numbers“).  In 2008 Netflix started offering its streaming service and by the end of that year sales dropped through the floor.  By the way, that year held some huge DVD sales titles.  Three family titles (Kung Fu Panda, WALL-E, and Alvin and the Chipmunks) as well as Iron Man and The Dark Knight.  Heck, the blockbuster juggernaut, Avatar, released on DVD in 2010 and you’ll notice that sales dropped off almost $1B that year as well.

Streaming is the new frontier, but Netflix licensing deals aren’t all they are cracked up to be.  A low budget, no name, indie license to Netflix streaming for two years is approximately the same as four to five thousand units of DVD sales.  Well, I’m hear to tell you that 4-5K DVD units is A LOT.  No, that’s not $20 per unit retail, that’s the wholesale price (what you are actually getting as the producer).  So, honestly, its an equivalent trade.  The problem is that people banked on both of these windows and now, there’s really just one.

Is the DVD dead?  Absolutely not.  Not even in the United States where blockbuster just closed its doors.  The fact is that internet bandwidth just isn’t good enough yet and not proliferate enough to kill the DVD… but its getting there.  Five years from now will probably mark the official death of the DVD, but by then the market will have figured out how to make money elsewhere.

Netflix is only ONE of many streaming options, albeit the big boy on the block.  I’m sure there will be more offerings in the streaming world as bandwidth availability grows and more and more people become technically savy so that hooking up a streaming device in your home to your big screen TV becomes second nature.  We’re still at the equivalent stage of streaming as we were in the 80’s when kids had to set the clocks on their parent’s VCRs.  In the long run it will pay off even better as more and more opportunities for sales rise in this streaming window.

Also, the streaming window is way down the line from theatrical, VOD, and DVD releases… but there is already a lobbying effort to change that.  Netflix just recently announced it was going to start producing its own films for day and date release on streaming and theatrical.  It’s not a new concept but it had been theatrical and VOD day/date that was the controversy.  If Netflix has its way the concept of release windows may just be thrown out one.  That will make premiums on some windows less, but increase the premiums of others… and to me that screams sellers market (if the content is worthy that is).

Death of DVD? Maybe.  Rebirth of an industry? Definitely.


Anatomy of a Distribution Agreement

I am going to try and explain a typical distribution agreement between a Producer and the Sales Agent.  A Sales Agent will act as the go between local distributors in foreign territories and you.  Individual distribution agreements will be similar….

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The Sale Phase of Distribution (and Delivery)

You’ve finished the film, sent it out and you’ve gotten a distribution agreement.  Wow, you’re all done, right? Not even close. Sorry, but you’ve got a mountain of items you need to deliver to the distributor.  Actually to each and…

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The Post-Production Phase of Distribution


We’re almost there.  Everything is in the can nothing but the edit left, right?  Sure, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot of things to keep thinking about that will make your film easier to sell.

First, look to your running time.  Your goal should be 90 minutes, but the film needs to be at least 83 minutes or it will, again, be rejected by most buyers.  Any shorter and they just don’t consider it a feature.  Also, please keep in mind that you are not Peter Jackson so no epic length films.  In fact keep it to a maximum of 110 minutes and don’t be surprised if your sales agent asks you to cut it down to 90.

Keep your edit tight.  Start already in the scene and cut out before it ends.  Keep action sequences moving.  The faster your pacing the better the perception of the film.  It is a fact of the business.  Just keep it moving.


Get objective third party feedback.  Don’t trust your friends, your cast, your crew, and especially your mom for objective feedback. They like you.  They are invested.  Hold public screenings with an anonymous way to give feedback.  The studios do it, so should you.


Make sure ALL your music is cleared.  That means licensed.  Even if its “public domain” you will need to show proof.  If its royalty free under a specific license or purchased from a website, you need to show proof.  If you purchased royalty free music online save your invoice/receipt and a PDF version of the page from the site that shows its royalty free.  If its from a site like incompetech.com (great resource for independent film makers) get a copy of the appropriate license  and, again, document the proof.

A FILM FESTIVAL license is not a license for distribution.  That will not suffice and will make you and your distributor liable (mostly you).


License stock footage.  It really is not that expensive and can give you great cinematic appeal.  The cost of you getting an aerial shot of the city vs. just buying one of dozens of stock film clips can mean hundreds if not thousands of dollars back to your bottom line.

You can also get large crowd scenes, disaster footage, and simple establishing shots.  All of this adds to the quality and completeness of your film.

Make sure to copy the license agreements and keep the receipts for your chain of title documentation for each clip.


While your editor and sound designer are hard at work, spend the time putting together your press kit.  You’re going to need it not only for your press contacts, but to give to potential buyers and then it will be a delivery requirement to those that license your film.

What should be in a press kit?

  • A quality, professional folder.  Not some off the shelf, mass produced stock.
  • Synopsis, actually three.  A Long, Medium, and short synopsis
  • Cast and Crew Bios
  • Create a Frequently Asked Questions document.  You are actually writing the article for them at this point.  What author, if given a set of questions and answers won’t want to use those to make their life easier?  Viola, they talk about exactly what you want them to.
  • Publicity Stills.  Ok, time to go through the 100+ photos you took and single out a dozen for use in the press.  You can even provide some crew shots and definitely provide headshots for the director.

Now deliver it to all those press folks we’ve been keeping in contact with since before the film began.

The Preproduction Phase of Distribution

In pre-production, every step of actually creating the film is carefully designed and planned. The production company is created and a production office established. The production is storyboarded and visualized with the help of illustrators and concept artists. The filmmaker…

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The Development Phase of Distribution

DEVELOPMENT In this stage, the filmmaker finds a story. After identifying a theme or underlying message, the filmmaker works with writers to prepare a synopsis. Next they produce a step outline, which breaks the story down into one-paragraph scenes that…

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