A contract, agreement, or statement of work (or whatever you’d like to call it) is an incredibly important part of the video-making process. But often it’s rushed, or worse, not even considered.

We get it. You got into video-making because of the art and power of telling stories — us too! — and the last thing you probably want to think about is legal documents. But hear us out. By taking a few hours upfront to get things sorted and ready to go, you’ll save days or weeks, and plenty of stress, money, and damaged client relationships down the line.

(Learn to set expectations and deliverables in the Academy of Storytellers’ lesson on creating a statement of work.)

Contracts are not the only key for protecting both you and your client in case things do go awry, but they can also serve as an incredibly helpful tool for clarifying objectives and responsibilities, ultimately setting your projects up for success.

Before we go any further, in true legal form, we have a disclaimer: we are not lawyers, nor do we play them on TV. Please consult your legal counsel regarding any and all of your own legal documents!

OK, now that that’s covered, let’s get you covered.

Put it in writing

This has likely happened to you (and probably many times over): what you said to someone in a conversation is not what they ultimately heard.

This isn’t a big deal if it’s a casual conversation about your favorite coffee roaster (unless you live in Portland, in which case, coffee convos are a big deal). But when it’s the difference between what you plan to deliver to your client and what they’re expecting, it’s not only a huge deal, it’s the crux of whether or not they’ll be happy with the outcome.

That’s where a contract saves the day. It’s a single document that points to the true north of each project’s objectives. Meaning, you and your client are working towards a single common goal that both parties have agreed on. Accomplish what the document outlines and you’ll have happier clients and likely better videos.

The key components

Let us preface this section quickly: contracts get a bad wrap… and it’s often because of the association. Think about that last lease document you signed or worse, a mortgage agreement, and you may be flooded with the memory of hundreds of pages seemingly written in a foreign language. Not fun!

But you can mitigate this by ensuring everything that’s in your agreement needs to be there, and that it’s presented in an easy-to-understand way (while still being legally enforceable, of course).

Here’s a quick rundown of possible contract content:

  1. Who’s involved
  2. All deliverables
  3. Roles and responsibilities for all parties
  4. Schedule
  5. Payment terms
  6. Rights and ownership
  7. Protection and dispute language

Ultimately, what your contract contains should be custom to you and your business. For example, in the schedule section, you may want to include delivery dates, but also key milestone dates throughout the entire process. This ensures that if your client is responsible for moving the project along. For example, say a client needs to approve the script, and it takes them three weeks to do so, instead of the one week outlined in the schedule, there is a clear understanding that the project’s delivery date will now be two weeks later than initially proposed.

Remember though, keep it easy to understand and ensure everything that’s in your contract needs to be there. And if you’re presented with a contract and you don’t understand something, ask!

(Want more tips for determining roles and responsibilities with clients? View production crew Gnarly Bay’s lesson.)

Make it fair for all parties

Contracts can be biased, usually favoring the person writing them. Great for landlords and mortgage companies, not so great when you’re collaborating with the person who is expected to sign the contract. When working with your legal counsel to draft your own up, be sure to take this into account.

If you consider your clients needs from the get-go, you’ll speed up the process by avoiding having to make any revisions or explain one-sided sections to your client. And it also starts the project on a good foot. Your clients will see that you care about them, all the way down to your legal documents.

Money, money, money

You may require a deposit, or that all hard costs are paid up front (for example, for talent, location fees, etc.), or that the project is paid in full before final delivery. Regardless of your specific payment terms, having it in writing ensures everyone is on the same page, and that there’s legal recourse if things don’t go as agreed upon. This is one of the most important reasons for filmmakers to get things in writing so you can get that cash money you’ve worked so hard for!

And don’t forget to include what happens when there are overages, and who pays for what should they occur. All of those editing revision rounds add up quickly to your bottom line. There’s nothing worse than finding out after the project wraps and you’ve had time to look at the numbers that you actually paid to make the project, as opposed to being paid.

Get it checked out

Speaking of working with your legal counsel: we know you’re crafty and handy — you’re a filmmaker, after all! Perform a quick Google search, and you’ll likely find thousands of example contracts and hundreds of online service providers who will provide you with an editable template. Our suggestion is to skip those.

Find a local lawyer, and work with them on crafting your contract. This not only ensures you’re actually covered by your local laws (for example, copyright laws vary drastically across the world), they can also help you turn that intimidating legalese into normal language, that’s still legally binding. Is it an extra expense? Yes. But it can save you headaches and tons of money in the long run in case things do veer off course and you wind up needing legal recourse.

Got a question, or tips for how you approach contracts? Let us know in the comments. And if you’re seeking to venture further into the business of filmmaking, dive into our recent Commercial Filmmaking Workshop, available exclusively on Vimeo. Explore everything from project breakdowns to pitches, budgets, and beyond, in over six hours of video presented by two successful studios, Stillmotion, and The Delivery Men.