Published on: 16 December 2021 in Longform
Lone wolf? Beware of sharks
Reading time: 17 minutes and 55 seconds
For Directors UK, an anonymous director writes about how their dream project turned into a nightmare — because no agreement existed for the ownership of their work.
But it wasn’t all for nothing: by telling their story, our director also lays out the warning signs of a big opportunity gone bad, so that others don’t have to go down the same path. Read the full story, and find the red flags to look out for, below.
Without an agreement for my film work, as a freelance director I learned the television industry can be a cruel business.
“I don’t give a **** about new talent” said the superstar, as I filmed them talking candidly about the next generation of stars in their sport.
Smiling as I held my camera – I knew it was a strong moment for my edit. Sadly for me, despite the warning signs I suppressed, there would later be a cruel irony to this.
A major streamer liked my work and paid more than $500,000 for it. But with no ownership agreement when pitched and commissioned, a dream project I’d driven to a brilliant place soon became a nightmare.
Like with any dispute, there are two sides to every story. But my only motivation here is to hopefully prevent my peers enduring a similar copyright horror show, because I believe passionately in making our world of work a kinder and fairer place.
What I can confidently say is no professional in the television industry, or anyone who cares about the work they produce, would agree to what I unfortunately did unless they were duped into signing it.
For years I’ve felt too frightened to speak out, because of the threat of legal action and being warned by mentors it could cause serious harm to my good guy reputation. When something bad crushes your self-belief, it’s best to look forward and direct your energy towards better times.
Ultimately, as professionally painful as this has been to reflect on, I feel a responsibility to share my damaging experience so fellow freelancers, production companies and the wider industry can learn from what happened to me.
Who am I?
Having signed a deal with ‘no moral rights’, I am writing this article anonymously.
As a director I had success in developing ideas to commission and leading the productions through to broadcast. My work has been recognised by awards bodies and ranges from VTs for high-profile shows to films shown on big screens through film festivals and theatrical release.
But I’ve never truly felt comfortable with the business side of television. Very few creative people do – like the majority of us, I just want to make stuff I feel proud of.
Despite decades climbing the production ladder and a decent understanding of copyright from my law degree, I am embarrassed by how naive I was and years of work towards a warm and celebratory film being cruelly taken advantage of.
The Dream Feature
I’ve delivered dozens of features, but this one really was a dream project.
Partly because the superstar has a huge fanbase (that included me) who would enjoy this unprecedented access, but mainly because this was a story that only those closest to them knew... for me it was incredibly exciting to be entrusted with filming the human side of their career.
Across 12 months I followed them with my camera. Just me. From preparation and genuine anxiety to performing and succeeding on the biggest stage. At home around their loved ones. Security escorts and private jets. Always in the heart of the action.
Throughout I appreciated what a phenomenal privilege it was, but one of the first warning signs I should’ve recognised during my shooting (in stark contrast to the superstar’s millions in wealth) was being paid relatively poorly for the pro work I was producing solo and the agent adding salt by insisting I must stay in budget hotels.
Early warning signs
For filming days that were often well beyond 10 hours and included the hire of my Red cinema camera, I was paid a minimal amount which fell way below my day rate as a shooting director and what I was paid for similar film projects.
It was spotted by my accountant who questioned why I was prepared to be so undervalued for major work. But I believed in its potential as a film and placed the access and opportunity above my modest payments.
As you might guess, these invoices were nearly always paid months after I first submitted them to the superstar’s team and the lateness is how my accountant noticed.
“I’ve never screwed anyone over in my 20 plus years in the business” was the repeated line from the superstar’s agent, but every time this was said it would actually worry me more. Why would I hear this again and again? “We control the edit” was another I felt uneasy about, along with many reminders of us working together “in good faith”.
There was no contracted agreement, but surely it was coming soon?
Naturally feeling undervalued, I was regularly patronised. But I decided to bite my tongue, enjoy the ride of these filming days, and remain focused on the bigger picture. Keep the people around the superstar happy and this would give me the greatest chance of achieving my end goal of delivering a magnificent feature doc.
With a tonne to play with, I began editing my footage into ‘best of’ cuts so together we could easily review the content. I was encouraged by the star describing my work as “outstanding” and, while disheartened to not be paid for any of these edits, my instinct was to continue building this belief in my ability.
Because access content revolves around trust. Several months into my shooting and amazed it had not come sooner, I offered to sign a NDA. I read the formal wording through, slowly and even slower the second time, and noticed there was absolutely nothing in it about copyright or media ownership. But for me the professional purpose of signing this NDA was putting pen-to-paper and strengthening the trust between us.
In the months and years that followed, I tried and failed miserably to negotiate any kind of fair director agreement. This imbalance of power was unfortunate and unbearable, but still this was my work and we still had no ownership agreement. Without their backing, there was no film. Without an agreement, how do we move forward and release this film?
The value of your time
Momentum is so important on a long-term project, but it’s easier to commit when the value of your time is respected. I asked but remained unpaid for all of my editing.
Between paid freelance roles that professionally I had to prioritise, thanks to the support of my partner who would do more of our parenting so I could find some time, I was able to piece together a pretty decent first cut.
Exhilarated to share my first full edit, I made clear in my email with the private viewing link that 3 hours was 90 minutes longer than I wanted the final version to be. But together we could agree on which moments were strongest and discuss/decide which areas of the film to widen, lose or condense.
Editorially this should be a nice dilemma – I’d weaved my master interviews and golden, unseen archive from across their career to complement a chronological narrative that had a clear start, middle and end. It was certainly not finished, but I was buzzing to move forward.
At this point the agent proposed to me that we bring in executive producers with a portfolio of high-profile films and fresh eyes to help us make these editorial decisions.
I was absolutely open to this. Ultimately I wanted my film to be the best it can be, and what appealed was I would learn from a production powerhouse whose previous work I admired.
Accepting it would have an impact financially, to me what mattered more was seeing this film through after years of graft and turning down plenty of other work opportunities along the way.
When we met for the first time, I knew I had to make a decision about recording our conversation. My head was saying I should beware of anyone coming into this project at such a late stage and I needed to protect my work, while my heart knew that placing my phone in the centre of the table to tape the audio of our meeting suggests an immediate distrust.
Before I had decided whether or not to use my mobile as a dictaphone, the superstar started the meeting by promising me, in front of everyone around the table (kindly recognising that I had driven us to this exciting place) that this was my doc to finish and there would be “absolute transparency”.
This promise and positive first impression was enough to make me feel OK about handing over my master hard drive, so a sizzle could be produced from my first full cut.
Unfortunately that was the last I would see of my hard drive.
As soon as it was collected, communication ceased to almost nothing. I sent emails asking for updates and what I could do to help, but I was told by the production powerhouse that I was “snowblind” despite feeling totally clear in my vision for completing this film.
Not being involved in the sizzle edit or pitching process was bizarre, with my work at the heart of it and still no ownership agreement, as my nerves quickly elevated to a very real fear that I was slowly but surely being elbowed out.
And sure enough, with the slapdash agent accidently sending me a breakdown of the production budget agreed with the streamer, the brutal reality of what had been going on behind my back was revealed in all its glorious disgrace.
My role had been significantly reduced – I was listed as the archive producer, who would be paid less than what would be spent on lighting hire for the filming of additional interviews. I never agreed to this and had been mightily deceived.
Exec producers, who proposed to support me as an emerging talent as I only had a few feature docs to my name, would be paying themselves seven (7) times more than me from a budget sixty (60) times larger than what I’d been working with.
I was livid. How could they act so unethically? It was immensely disrespectful and not what was presented, not what we verbally agreed, not fair. But most of all I was genuinely gobsmacked by their audacity and, on a professional level, it hurt like hell.
When it hit the fan, ignited by this detailed budget breakdown, their attitude towards me swung from near silence to manipulative messages and borderline harassment. Rather than prolong the unpleasantness, I tried to rise above by accepting their dishonesty and hoped we could return to our original plan of action.
“Bad deal” or no deal and no credit
My sincere efforts to work together – from researching, shortlisting and contacting super fans to creating decks with filming proposals and locations – went up in smoke when it was demanded by the production powerhouse that I sign over my copyright (including all of my development, shooting/directing and editing) for a measly 3% of the budget.
Shocked and appalled, as there would be no commission without my work that still had no ownership agreement, but their arrogance and bullish behaviour was purposefully making it impossible to communicate and collaborate, by excluding me from production meetings, cancelling arranged calls, and not replying to my messages.
So I compromised – I signed my copyright over to the superstar, in return for a better credit and decent minutes for my showreel. I also had a small win in negotiating upwards from the 3% to something slightly more.
Despite the dent to my pride, for the reasons above and more I was glad to no longer be trying to work with the production powerhouse – who presented themselves as wanting to help me realise my Jaws, when actually they were always sharks.
I learned the hard way that actions speak louder than words. I learned that television, an industry that overall I’ve loved being part of, can be a cruel business if you create something special without an agreement in place.
What I got wrong
I failed by not trusting my gut feeling that things weren’t right. I failed by not approaching lawyers until it was too late – I had already signed a deal with ‘no moral rights’. I failed by not backing myself more.
I knew I was capable of delivering something tremendous, but on the home straight I made the wrong decision. Handing over my master hard drive... so naive, so stupid.
I was foolish to ignore the alarm bells. And the final version – which was never shared with me, that’s how excluded I was by the end – was immensely underwhelming.
Another mistake was my natural optimism that such an extreme situation could be resolved. And when things were said to me that ranged from offensive to utterly unforgivable, I should’ve had the courage to call it out and step away sooner.
Thankfully lots of people in our industry encourage, support and champion new talent. But sadly, as I discovered on this project, some do only care about their own interests. The agent blamed the production powerhouse. The production powerhouse blamed the agent. In most probability, they had schemed together behind my back for a while. How else would the agent have inadvertently shared with me the production budget breakdown that lit the fuse of this truth bomb?
Do I blame the superstar? They were presented a different narrative maybe, but I would be foolish to think they were unaware. Months before the film’s release when they had time to rectify things, I did flag my concerns about the absence of integrity... the broken promises... the sheer unfairness anyone in my shoes would be so upset with. Instead of taking responsibility, they refused to meet with me to explain (for my closure I had questions I deserved answers to) or apologise for the "absolute transparency" they had promised but proved to be an empty one.
Warning signs upon warning signs
- No ownership agreement for my work until after the film had been formally commissioned by the streamer.
- Excluded from production meetings (I only ever had one with the production powerhouse who abruptly ended it after 20 minutes so they could return to working on another project) despite being able and willing to attend.
- Contacted late on Friday evening and expected to start working with the production powerhouse on Monday morning. Already having freelance commitments that week and not prepared to let them down over the weekend, I was then nicknamed ‘Splitter’ for sticking with my original job (only a few days) and not choosing them as I “delayed the production”. When I asked for clarification on what exactly my role would entail, they had no answer other than “attend the next meeting and you will find out”.
- It was demanded by the production powerhouse, in return for their creative support, that I sign over my copyright for all of my work for less than $10,000.
- Nasty negotiating tactics: “We’re only hiring a celebrity booker because she’s *****, and we’re only working with you because currently we have to”, “Looking at your CV, you’re going to really struggle for work over the next few years if you don’t accept this”, “We’re offering you a bad deal, but no deal and the NDA you signed means you don’t get paid a dollar more and you can’t talk to anyone about what you made”.
- Credit on the final version is different to my contract. None of the pro freelancers I hired were credited for their contribution. My name was also excluded from the film’s poster and press release.
- Someone else gave themselves director credit for the film, and my voice was overdubbed on the footage and interviews I shot so it sounded like they were behind the camera.
- Master hard drive returned to me broken – physically damaged, wiped of my work and deemed irreparable.
A fairer future
“Every freelancer working in our industry deserves decent working conditions and that we should all advocate a culture that promotes respect, professionalism and investment in people. The best creative content will come from an industry that puts people first, celebrates difference, and enables us all to thrive.”
I’m inspired by the aims of Coalition For Change (a pan-industry group to improve freelance working practices) and motivated by the many who have signed its first charter, including Directors UK. Groups like The TV Mindset continue to work towards television becoming a fairer, kinder and more transparent, more enjoyable world to make a living from.
This film would never have been commissioned without my work, but business came first and on a human level I came last. Reaffirmed by the formal response from the CEO, who would be horrified if they knew the full extent of what really happened, of this production powerhouse who acted outrageously.
Did it promote respect, professionalism and investment in people? Absolutely not.
So how do we, as a collective of directors and creatives who are the lifeblood of an industry that is largely a supportive freelance community of nice people, better protect our work and prevent experiences like mine happening again?
When the global pandemic hit, it put my terrible time at the end of this project into perspective. But it was during the pandemic that I realised I owed it to my peers to revisit my past and bang the drum for a fairer future.
Having mentored many through numerous film schools and industry schemes, it gives me a buzz that the newest generation of doc-makers have greater access to camera gear than ever before. More and more will create independently to build their portfolio, with now more platforms than ever to showcase what they’ve produced.
Therefore I’m using this article to share my experiences, in the hope that others might recognise some of the signs and experiences I went through, before it’s too late.
Please share this article with your peers. I am a lone wolf. But I am not alone. There are many of us, so by being open about our bad experiences we can both help each other to avoid upsetting ones, and inspire real movements of change.
All I ask is that you learn from my mistakes and back yourself way more than I did. As champion of kindness and my new hero Ted Lasso coaches – BELIEVE.
Time heals and I’ve rediscovered my mojo, but the nightmare end to this dream project left me feeling so despondent I nearly never came back.
Whenever you’re creating work independently and especially without an ownership agreement, please: beware of sharks.