The 'Discreet Business' Of Filmmaking: Advice From A Wisconsin Entertainment Lawyer

Sep 4, 2019

The Milwaukee Short Film Festival takes place Friday and Saturday. It’s the festival’s 21st anniversary. Founder and filmmaker Ross Bigley says each year the festival becomes better known, with films coming in from around the world.

There will be a panel discussion on Saturday afternoon put on by the Wisconsin Entertainment Lawyers Association (WELA). The panelists will offer advice to anyone wanting to make independent films. As you can imagine, there's a lot of work a filmmaker needs to do before ever picking up a camera.

"There are certain things you need to take care of ideally on the front-end so that when you have a finished film and you’re attempting to market it or sell it to other people, you have the necessary things the people that want to buy those films are going to want to see — like releases, certain agreements, all those kinds of things," notes Robert Arthur. He's an entertainment lawyer in Milwaukee and the president and one of the founders of WELA.

Most people associate entertainment law with cities like Los Angeles, New York or Chicago. But Arthur says there are plenty with that level of expertise in Milwaukee.

"Each film is a really discreet business by itself — it has a mission, there are people that come together to make [it]." - Robert Arthur

When filmmakers start projects, especially short films, Arthur says they often don't realize they're actually starting a business. "Each film is a really discreet business by itself — it has a mission, there are people that come together to make [it]," he explains.

The Milwaukee Short Film Festival is celebrating its 21st anniversary.
Credit The Milwaukee Short Film Festival

Ross Bigley, founder and director of the Milwaukee Short Film Festival, notes that most filmmakers learn about legalities as they make a project. As a filmmaker himself, he recalls that there was some legal responsibility anticipated — but the reality went beyond his expectations.

"I had an inclination that you do have to cover yourself a little bit. I didn't know the extent of how much you had to cover," he notes.

Things such as licenses to shoot at locations, decoration approval, state laws that must be followed, intellectual property, legalities involving documentary subjects and distribution on digital platforms are often "things people don't consider," says Bigley.

Ultimately, Arthur says that having these conversations in the beginning of the filmmaking can help streamline the process.

"These don't have to be long conversations, but if you involved somebody like me on the beginning of it then the conversations get a lot easier," he says.