Documentary Film

Shatzkin & Mayer is recognized for its advocacy for documentary filmmakers’ interests.  We have successfully shepherded a long list of projects through production and the insurance application process, including films with challenging clearance issues.

We get involved as early in the process as possible, so that our filmmaker clients feel grounded when making decisions as their projects proceed.  We identify and evaluate issues that can impact a project, spanning a range of legal doctrines, such as copyright (including fair use), trademark, privacy and publicity, defamation, trespass, misrepresentation, shield laws and obscenity statutes, as well as licensing and other contractual issues.

Often, filmmakers have substantially more negotiating power and greater rights to use pre-existing material than they initially perceive.  We can help filmmakers avoid spending countless hours and scarce dollars obtaining permissions that were totally unnecessary — or worse, excising material from their films that they have every right to include.  Common dilemmas include:

  • What if you film on the street and passersby are caught by your camera?  What if they are minors?
  • What if you are shooting in front of a significant architectural landmark, such as the Empire State Building?  May you follow the person you are filming into the building?
  • What if a painting or sculpture is in the background of a shot?  What if it is the focal point?
  • What if music is playing at an event you film?  Or someone has the television on?
  • What if your subject is drinking a Coke on-camera?  Or wearing a logo t-shirt?
  • What if she calls another person a liar or a thief?
  • What if you include footage of a minor, a crime victim, a celebrity or politician?  Or news footage?  Text or headlines from a newspaper?  Clips from another movie?
  • What if someone who said you could film her changes her mind?

We also assist filmmakers once their films are completed.  We prepare opinion letters for submission with applications for errors and omissions insurance.  We write licenses and releases.  We negotiate agreements with licensing parties or enable the client to do so itself.  We also negotiate distribution agreements, joint-venture arrangements and production contracts.

At the invitation of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and the Southern Documentary Fund, Karen Shatzkin created a day-long seminar, “Knowing Your Rights: Legal Fundamentals for Documentary Artists,” which she has conducted for filmmakers, film students and attorneys.  She has annually been a guest lecturer at the New School’s and Columbia Journalism School’s graduate documentary media programs.

Ms. Shatzkin has also been a repeat panelist at the University of Kansas’ annual attorneys’ “Media and the Law” seminar, including on the topic, “Imagine There’s a Lawsuit: Copyright Infringement and Other Intellectual Property Perils for Film Documentarians.”

WATCH MEET MAKE interviewed Ms. Shatzkin for a series on legal issues in documentary filmmaking, including the following excerpt describing issues a filmmaker might run into while filming.

Video courtesy of WATCH MEET MAKE.

The New School edited an excerpt of one of Ms. Shatzkin’s guest lecture on fair use:

Karen Shatzkin On Fair Use from NEW SCHOOL DOC STUDIES on Vimeo.