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Q: Does every single person who appears on camera need to sign a release?
A: You should obtain a release, at the very least, if someone has a speaking part or substantial screen time in your film. You don’t have to obtain releases from every single extra in the film, but releases are a very good idea for everyone, even someone who appears on camera only momentarily. Given how short and simple releases can be, obtaining signatures should be easy. Simply hand them out with the language discussed here, and make sure you obtain everyone’s signatures before their scenes begin shooting.
The people who appear on camera in your film (a) should know they are on camera, (b) should consent to be on camera and (c) are probably excited about being on camera. This goes for the stars, who will likely have lengthy written contracts setting forth their duties and obligations and making it clear that the producer owns all the rights in their work, as well as the extras. The purpose of obtaining releases from extras is really the same as getting the stars to sign their contracts: To get their acknowledgement and consent that they will appear on camera, that you (the producer) will own all rights in the proceeds of their work (so they cannot later claim any rights in or to the film or their appearance in it) and that they will not sue you for making them “look bad” in the film.
Your risk of exposure to such claims for defamation or “false light” is higher with extras who have lines or appear onscreen for a significant time than it is for those who merely walk across the frame, and it is much higher for “mockumentary” films like Borat or the upcoming Bruno, where the extras may not know what they are involved in. But releases can and should be easy to obtain in connection with standard scripted films, and they should be obtained in every context anyway—especially in the “Borat” situation. Releases can be just a page long, allowing you to hand them out to all the extras before shooting with the simple instruction to “sign this.”
The “magic words” a release should contain include:
1. “For good and valuable consideration….” All contracts require “consideration,” which means that each party to the contract gives and receives something of value. For extras, the consideration they receive will be either a small sum of money or simply the opportunity to appear onscreen in the film. (See above—people are usually very excited to be on camera and will readily sign anything facilitating their “big break” into the world of motion pictures.)
2. A broad release of “any and all claims” for defamation, false light, invasion of privacy or publicity, copyright infringement, etc. arising from their appearance or depiction onscreen.
3. In conjunction with #2, a promise that the extra will not sue you, the producers or the studio for money damages or for an injunction preventing the movie from filming or being released.
4. A disclaimer that you are not obligated to actually use any footage containing the extra in your film.
Most studios insist on releases from all extras. So should you. They are easy to draft (but talk to an attorney first), easy to implement and can save you substantial expense and stress down the road.
Chad Fitzgerald, an attorney at Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert, a high-profile, L.A.-based entertainment litigation firm, specializes in entertainment and business litigation as well as transactional matters for entertainment industry clients. He has represented actors, musicians, professional athletes, and production and distribution entities, as well as clients in the toy, apparel, yoga, and diamond industries, entertainment guilds, personal and business managers, and talent agents and agencies in disputes in California and federal courts as well as before the California Labor Commissioner and the guilds. Mr. Fitzgerald handles contract, profit participation, financing, distribution, copyright, and trademark disputes in the entertainment industry as well as business litigation matters involving contracts, sales, employment, partnership and franchise disputes, fraud, trade secrets, rights of privacy, and defamation. He also negotiates agreements for intellectual property rights holders, entertainment industry executives, producers, and independent filmmakers.