Q: I was just asked by a producer to work for free on an indie film, but he promised that I would get great exposure from the gig. Is that a legitimate replacement for pay?

Exposure isn’t a suitable replacement for actual compensation because the producer is offering you something that may never materialize… something that he may, in fact, not be willing or able to deliver at all.

In order for an employment contract to be legally binding, the agreement must contain “consideration,” an exchange of promises, goods, services or money between the parties. Both parties have to give something to get something. In a typical employment contract, you’ll provide work services in exchange for financial compensation.

But exposure doesn’t qualify as consideration because it’s largely formless and indefinite, and without greater detail, meaningless. What does that exposure entail? How will the producer provide it? How will you know when you received it? Does the offer extend merely to the producer telling other people about you, or is the offer only good if you receive more work? In many cases, this ambiguity means that the producer may not have to do anything for you at all, creating, in essence, a one-sided deal. This is called an “illusory promise” and it makes the contract unenforceable.

And exposure is illusory not just because it’s a potentially empty promise (there’s no guarantee that anyone will see the fruit of your labor), but it may also persuade you into accepting a job you might not have otherwise. These kinds of promises are pervasive in the film industry, where it’s increasingly difficult for small and indie films to get distribution deals. Unless you’re working on the next Spielberg, Bay or Nolan film (in which case they can afford to pay you, end of story), you never actually know if the film will get finished, let alone distributed and seen by the public. Another common illusory contract provision is where the producer will offer financial compensation only if the film makes a profit… which very few ever do. Watch out for this one, it’s especially pernicious.

The only way I can see an offer of exposure being legally valid is if the producer makes an effort to send new clients your way, hire you for other jobs himself, or take other proactive measures to get you more work. In that instance, you should ensure these actions are detailed in writing. The more you can clarify an employer’s responsibility towards you, the less likely that promise will be illusory.

To me, an offer of exposure is worse than being offered nothing because it creates the impression you’ll get something out of the deal when you probably won’t. It lacks the honesty of a regular unpaid offer. If you’re already squeamish about doing unpaid work, you should be downright irritated if someone offers you “great exposure” as fair and just compensation. It’s neither.

And for the record, there’s a substantial difference between the employer merely stating that you’ll get great exposure from the project vs. making exposure part of the offer of employment. The former is typically the result of their excitement about the project. The latter is a central part of the offer, an excuse to get you to say “yes” to a job you might turn down. Knowing which is which can be very hard, so use your best judgment. And if you still can’t tell the difference, call a lawyer. MM

Have a legal question you want our advisers to answer in a future installment of Cinema Law? Send it into [email protected] with the subject line “Cinema Law Question.”

Gregory R. Kanaan, Esq. is a Boston-based attorney representing artists, filmmakers and designers in Massachusetts and New York. His practice focuses on entertainment and art law, as well as intellectual property issues. He has resolved disputes involving copyrights, publicity rights, trademarks, and contractual disputes for a wide range of independent filmmakers and design professionals. Prior to becoming an attorney, Mr. Kanaan was a television producer, creating documentaries and series for The Discovery Channel, Court TV, TLC, and A&E, among others. When not practicing law, Mr. Kanaan writes for his blog,The [Legal] Artist, which aims to educate creative professionals on the legal issues that affect them most.

The answers to legal questions provided here are for general education and information purposes only, and are not legal advice or legal opinions. The information provided in this article is not intended to create a lawyer-client relationship between Mr. Kanaan and a reader.

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.