Tom Dunlap HeadshotBy Tom Dunlap

Dunlap is a founding partner of Dunlap Bennett & Ludwig.


[1.23.2020 Salt Lake City, UT] I have had the honor of attending the Sundance Film Festival as a panelist these last few years and have the honor of going again this year.  On the Sundance TV panel, panelists discussed their personal challenges in the business of independent film.  I was joined by various filmmakers and producers, such as Marc Turtletaub, producer of “Little Miss Sunshine” and Natasha Lyonne, most commonly known for her role as ‘Nicky Nichols’ in the popular Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black.”

Almost invariably these successful filmmakers, directors, and producers all have one thing in common:  they have faced their share of legal or business challenges that they had to overcome.  Likewise, they each had sage advice to give based on what they know now. Some small examples of past panel woes included:

  • Dealing with People and Releases for Images, Life Rights, etc.  Acquiring the estate of a person who is deceased to grant permission to use that person’s life story, in cases where the deceased was a recluse before they passed away.
  • Clearance Issues   In one case some accidental background content, where a name brand or logo wound up in a film, without the permission of the brand owner.
  • Government Challenges   Getting permission from the government of Cuba to hold an outdoor concert featuring all American musical artists or getting the right and special license to film in China.
  • Disputes Over Credits   Who got to be in the opening credits, who got their own page, etc.

While I don’t know what challenges will be presented at this year’s 2020 panel – here are a quick Top-Five List of “Gotchas!” for any independent filmmaker.  Check the list below out, and make sure to tune in to the Sundance TV panel on Tuesday, January 28th (or come see it in person!).

  1. Own the script. Have proof.  One of the biggest issues in the industry.
  2. Get clearance for every image, brand, or other “owned” piece of intellectual property, preferably while you make the film, but you must do this before a distributor will touch it!
  3. Get releases from every actor, extra, sound artist, musician, and everyone that touches the film. Err of the side of getting over-released.
  4. Think about content and where you plan to distribute. While it is art and often you need to use it to tell the story, some places won’t distribute the film with obscenity (seriously? Yes, seriously), blasphemy, or defamatory content (and you could be sued).
  5. This is a weird one I have run into, clear your title. While you might have fans and the title of your film might be “perfect” – it is not so perfect if a brand owner decides to sue you.


Have a wise and experienced counselor in your back pocket at all times, I could not recommend any more than my law partner Kurt Klaus – a former studio exec turned lawyer, check out his bio to learn more.

Posted in: Media & Entertainment