The Pocket Lawyer for Filmmakers: A Legal Toolkit for Independent Producers by Thomas A. Crowell, Esq. (2nd Edition)
449p., $34.95 cover price

I’m sorry that it took me so long to pick up my review copy of this book, because it is excellent. I think what made me drag my feet was the title, which sounds like you’ll be thumbing a thicket of legal jargon. Far from it. Filmmaker-and-producer-turned-lawyer Thomas A. Crowell, Esq. writes in plain language and with generous humor. The book is more like a comprehensive movie business guide which also happens to contain explanations of the legal aspects of the industry.

This is a heavy book. Ignore the “Pocket” in the title. Unless you are a circus clown, it will probably not fit in your pocket. Which is not to say the book is long-winded. It’s just jam-packed with information. (Dare I say more jam-packed than a car filled with circus clowns?) Crowell does a good job of boiling things down to essentials and then providing hypothetical examples that illustrate the points.

So what’s covered? Copyrights and rights of all kinds, forming a production company, employment contracts, distribution contracts, financing, tax credits, even uploading to YouTube. I’m hard-pressed to name a topic that is not covered.* If there is one thing I will say, it is that the book is expressly geared toward independent film producers who are playing with the big boys. Unsurprisingly, there is zero endorsement of the sort of ultra-low-budget “shortcuts” of questionable legal soundness endorsed by some other filmmaking books. (Cf. the YouTube trailer for the book, which demonstrates how such thinking leads to zombie lawyer attacks.)

One of the points about this book that shouldn’t be overlooked is just how well-organized it is. There are tabs printed on the side so you can quickly thumb through and find the topic you are looking for, which makes it great for reference, although I think most filmmakers will get a lot out of the book by reading it cover to cover. I certainly did.

This book is not a substitute for a live entertainment lawyer. But it will definitely pay for itself many times over through avoiding long conversations with entertainment lawyers, especially if it keeps you out of court. It makes a good companion for a contract book, like Litwak’s Contracts for the Film & Television Industry.

In short, this is a must-have book for independent movie producers and filmmakers who are serious about the business of filmmaking. Recommend.

* According to a note in the book, the Focal Press website is supposed to contain additional information that wouldn’t fit in the book. After an annoying registration process, I was able to access the page for the Pocket Lawyer. There wasn’t much there. It contains a .pdf with screenshots that explain how to register your film on the copyright.gov website, identical (as far as I could tell) .pdf reprints of the chapter “Acquiring Screenplay Rights” and Appendices D and E from the book and some extra information on child labor laws. The author’s blog, with six posts since December 2010 (as of this writing) contains more additional information. Unless they add more content and in a format that is native to the web — interactive, html, not blocked by a registration wall — I don’t think it’s worth the trouble. [Back]

Disclosure: John Ott writes for MasteringFilm.com, a website affiliated with Focal Press, which also published this book. He agreed to review this book before that relationship developed.