Despite Pandemic, Colorado Film World Looks Optimistically to Post-COVID Future

In the niche world of film law, Colorado attorneys and experts look to help artists now and later

Despite being a small bench of attorneys, Colorado’s film industry attorneys have plenty of work across a vast range of clients, budgets and film types. While COVID-19 completely disrupted the film industry’s status quo, attorneys remain optimistic about the state’s film business’ potential to bounce back from the pandemic.

“So much of the film and video industry across the country, and especially in Colorado, is not making major motion pictures, but are busy making things that otherwise end up on screens.” said Dave Ratner, the founder of the Creative Law Network, a firm that serves clients in film, music and other creative areas. “The average American, when we think of film, we think of motion pictures in the theaters, but there is a much deeper film industry than that.”

Legal issues around filmmaking are include forming contracts, clearing creative rights for people and locations, and funding, he said. Even before COVID, Ratner said artists and creative types have struggled because of the difficulty in “making it,” and the virus has disproportionately affected the arts in detrimental ways. Hospitality and creative industries are affected heavily by COVID, he said, because so much of those industries depend on in-person experiences of going to film, concerts or museums.

“Since we have no idea what’s going to happen with COVID, we have no idea what is going to happen with COVID in the film industry — I think that’s a big unknown, a big ‘X’ factor to be determined that we don’t have control over,” he said.

And, while there might only be hundreds of major movies made each year, Ratner said there are thousands of independent films of different budget, sizes and length made across the globe — and in Colorado. The diversity of shooting locations, both rural and urban, help make the state a valuable place for film.

Due to COVID, production came to a standstill during the spring, Ratner said, which in turn changed the pipeline for film production. He had some clients who had completed production and filming and were able to move to the editing room. For those clients, they could proceed with placing the product in the pipeline. “Now, there’s going to be a bit of a vacuum,” Ratner said, adding that there are some films that were set to be made but that now won’t be. “It absolutely has affected production timelines across the industry.”

And while the creatives have had a major disruption in their production schedules, Caroline Kert, an attorney with Feldman Nagel Cantafio & Song, said her independent film clients have had the flexibility to create content without relying on huge crews or travel budgets.

Kert added that 2020 has been a strange year filled with challenges, but she has still seen clients “who are making it work.”

Kert attended film school — an experience that has helped her with her legal work in film.

 While at film school, she learned there are so many moving parts that excitement about starting to film can be overwhelming. As such, it’s useful to have someone removed to look through details of what can go wrong — and have those conversations up front.

In an ideal world, Ratner said that the legal work takes place before production begins on a film, Kert said much of her work in film comes after production has commenced. Her practice focuses on the technicalities protecting intellectual property, as well as releases for filming on lands, permits required to shoot commercial products and clarifying rights for insurance companies. She often works with clients and distributors after a film finishes and clarifies details such as clear line of title on scripts or rights to things in the film — which sometimes aren’t cleaned up well.

Kert said that her clients still are able to get distribution details and appear to be making films and are figuring out ways to deal with COVID risks on sets. Many of her videography clients are replacing in-person events with online assets for their clients.

“I think a lot of people are using the downtime to be creative and work on projects,” she said.

Colorado Film Commissioner Donald Zuckerman said COVID-19 has affected the whole industry, especially at high budgets. He noted that COVID exclusions are necessary now in most major contracts, not to mention specialized insurance, bonds and bank loans for films.

Zuckerman is an attorney himself, and his work in and out of the legal world has included time as a public defender, private practice attorney and film producer working with major studios and productions. Despite his legal background, Zuckerman said he trusts legal challenges to experienced film attorneys — sometimes more than one focusing on separate issues. As a producer, he realized that he needed an attorney who understood the business, and despite his background, he would not hold himself out to be a “great film lawyer.” As an arcane art form, the participants want a person who understands the industry when dealing with actors and the correct pricing for services and items.

However, Zuckerman believes someone can learn the business from anywhere, but it is important to know Screen Actors Guild rules, contractual details and other important factors of the film industry.

Kert agreed. “There’s room for knowledgeable and passionate attorneys always to help artists,” she said, adding that she stays within her knowledge as an IP attorney. “The real important part is to love the field and the type of clients you’ll be working with.”

And despite the COVID challenges, film production has continued in the state, including television pilots and a low-budget independent feature films, Zuckerman said.

 “And we’ll be coming out of this soon,” Kert said, “and people are going to be really eager to have that entertainment and those events, and it’s just a matter of sticking with things now and it’ll all come out O.K.”

Looking to the future, Zuckerman said the implementation of COVID vaccines will change everything in film production, and insurance companies will insure projects with proof of vaccination. Zuckerman said his office was getting a lot of calls about possible projects.  

If anything, Ratner said the ability to work from home might improve the film industry in Colorado. With many people able to change where they live and work, more people will likely move to Colorado from the coasts. And for film, that could bode well for the state, he said.

However, film has specific needs, especially at the major motion picture level, needing to be fostered and grown to increase the industry as well.

Ratner feels that film incentives are important to bringing any major films — or television — to Colorado moving forward. 

He’s concerned that COVID may affect the incentive program due to budgetary concerns faced from COVID-19.

“For that industry to continue to grow will rely on making Colorado an attractive place to do these things,” he said. 

— AMartinez

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