Don’t Sign the Actor Release Form for Student Films

student films

I read a tweet once by an agent that said, and I am paraphrasing, “I can only do my job if an actor is willing to lose the job.” The agent meant that he can only properly negotiate if an actor is willing to walk away from the project. That can be scary for actors, but here is a great way to practice that…don’t sign the actor release form for student films.

As soon as an actor signs the release form, they lose all power. I recommend not signing it until the last day of production. If that is too uncomfortable, then start by writing an addendum on the form. Something like, “If the shooting script is changed in any way during production, this release is void.” I recommend talking with your agent to see what wording they would use.

This may require a discussion with the director on why you are doing this. Simply tell the director that it is not about them or lack of trust in the current project, but due to an unprofessional experience on a past project, this step is taken as protection.

Need an example of a past unprofessional experience? Here is the story…

I signed on to play the lead role in a USC graduate film. It was an interesting story and we would be shooting six days around LA and in the desert. In hindsight, there were some red flags in pre-production and production that I justified or shrugged off. One red flag was that the director sent an email out requesting cast and crew not to take behind-the-scene photos as there would be an official photographer. He stated that if anyone did take pictures they would be removed from the film. That language seemed extreme, but I justified it by thinking the director was just trying to make a point.

The graduate film was a 582 thesis film, meaning that the student raised their own money and held the copyright. USC also has the option where the student can use school money, but then the school holds the copyright. The director was also the executive producer, director of photography (with many shots being hand-held), and production designer. This was also a red-flag as it was clear the director was a one-man show. The only other producer was an associate producer, which was basically a gloried assistant. The associate producer had no say, power or input. Another red flag was the crew was all hired help. There were no fellow USC graduate students helping on this film. In all my past experience working on student films classmates crewed each other’s projects. Those other classmates obviously knew something that I did not know about working with this director.

It was the night before day four of shooting. I emailed the director and associate producer to confirm mileage reimbursement. Many student filmmakers ignore, or gloss over, the fact that mileage reimbursement is not deferred. The day rate is deferred, but not mileage reimbursement. After a couple of emails back and forth where I nicely pointed the mileage reimbursement out in the contract that he sent us, his last email stated he will mail me a check, that he was going a different direction in the script and I would no longer be needed on set. The director was not CCing the associate producer in the emails he sent to me. I called her and she knew nothing of this decision. He would not return my phone calls and the associate producer recommended I show up to set the next day so the three of us could talk. I showed up on set and the director would not come out of the building.

Through emails and messages with the crew I heard the director was saying I did not deliver. I had two artistic “conversations” with the director. Once was by email after a four person scene. I said that I felt like the end of the scene did not click until the last shot, which we shot in profile. I knew the last day was a pick-up day and I offered to shoot that last section again so the director could get close-ups, if he wanted. The director emailed back agreeing to re-shoot as he also did not like the blocking. The last scene of the third night was a scene between me and the actress playing my sister. At the end of shooting, he said we had good chemistry. That was the extent of his artistic direction. Nowhere did he ever have a one-on-one conversation with me saying that something was not working. There was no collaboration between the director and actor. No talking between takes to try it a different way. He did not have time to talk with actors as he was too busy being executive producer, director, DP and production designer.

One speculation I have is that we did not get the last scene of the film and he had to re-write the script. In the last scene, my character is supposed to run up to a gas station in the desert and shoot the bad guy. The bus got to set an hour late that day and by the time we shot that scene we only had enough daylight for one take. Due to camera placement and movement, we did not get the scene in the one take. By the time we shot it again it was completely dark and the scene would not match with the earlier footage. Again this is speculation, as I have no idea the reason for the director’s decision because he would not talk with me.

I reached out to the faculty advisor, who was nothing less than completely professional. He agreed the director was taking on too much responsibility, over-worked and did not conduct himself in a professional manner. After the faculty advisor was in contact with the director, I received an email stating that the production had no issues with me. The faculty advisor quickly responded that the director did not take his advice to offer to meet with me person-to-person and instead chose to talk as the production. After the director and faculty advisor met in person, I received a two-line email basically saying, “Hey, you want to meet in person for coffee.” I replied that I did not have the time to meet with him and the time to talk was the day on set when the director would not come out of the building. I stated the director’s request to meet was disingenuous and that it would not be productive as the director clearly did not understand how unprofessional he was. I never heard back from the director and the faculty advisor emailed me to confirm that my assessment was correct.

We had shot the beginning of the movie and the end of the movie before I was released. From what I heard, the director changed minor things in the script and somehow killed off my character. I also talked with a USC graduate film alumni I work with at my day job. He was shocked to hear this story. He said if the project was funded by USC, the director would have been assigned a producer. The producer would have fired the director for doing this.

Here is where the release comes in. If I did not sign the release, the director would not be able to use any of the footage of me and would have screwed himself over by firing me. Since I did sign the release, he can use the footage of me however he likes. I will now be in a movie that I did not originally sign on to be in. Not signing the release (or writing in an addendum) protects an actor from a director going rogue and changing the script half-way through production. Nine times out of ten will this happen? No. But there is a chance. An actor needs to set-up protections of how their image and voice will be used.

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    8 thoughts on “Don’t Sign the Actor Release Form for Student Films

    1. Daz

      Sorry to hear that this happened Dennis. I too auditioned for that guy but I got a really strange vibe about him right from the start and from past experiences I have learned to trust my gut so I wasnt wrong about him. I also had a bad experience with a NYFA filmmaker and now after almost 16 months still maintains that his project is not finished and steadfastly refuses my pleas for even raw footage of only my scenes that I could edit myself. The faculty could not help as the project belonged to this guy. Well I found out that legally, that if the project has not been shown or distributed, you can in fact revoke your permission so that’s exactly what I did. I’m not proud that it went that way but this guy was hostile and rude so to me it was worth it. Now days I am just going keep on keeping on and no longer do any student film unless its a graduate thesis project as those are usually well funded and handled professionally.

      Cheers!

      Daz

    2. cody warlock

      Long story short, film students can be monsters. As an actor i have done quite a few student films and there are almost always issues Once I did a student film and signed no release form but was told after the fact that it didn’t matter, they still had the right to use my image. For some reason most (I said most not all) film students seen to have an inherent disrespect for actors. Not sure why. Ego? Power trip? Whatever it is its really a shame.

    3. Dennis Baker Post author

      Hi Cody,

      Thank you for sharing. While I do not mean to negate your experience, most filmmakers conduct themselves in a professional manner. This is actually the only bad experience I had. Granted some filmmakers were late, or never, sent me footage, but my on-set experiences have always been highly professional. I hope your future experiences turn out a lot better.

    4. DEA VISE

      A smart filmmaker won’t shoot a single frame of an actor without a signed contract or release form.

      Don’t shoot yourself in the foot over a student film, guys. Seriously.

      Best,
      Dea Vise CSA

    5. Dennis Baker Post author

      Dea, thanks for your input. You know how much I appreciate you and the work you do. That is why I mentioned the addendum. That would be my first choice. The addendum allows the filmmaker to move forward as planned, but also protects the actor from these type of issues. Both parties are protected, which is the ideal situation.

    6. Clark Renney

      This is an interesting article, Dennis. I have done several Student shoots here in England and have never really given much thought to the release forms, assuming they are essentially covering the public liability of the University and of course, gaining the permission of the Actor/Actress to use their image for copyright purposes; (a permission which can be withdrawn). And given that such projects are invariably unpaid and unlikely to be shown at Cannes, the Actor/Actress is essentially gaining experience by helping an aspiring film-maker to pass their BA(Hons) degree.
      I note that you are writing from your experience in the United States, but the principles may apply generally.
      Thank You.

    7. Patrick Kanehann

      A contract is between two parties, and should be agreed upon, ratified (signed) before work starts. Deal points ranging from days/hours/pay to usage among many other provisions are completely negotiable (not to supersede or usurp SAG/AFTRA provisions, if a SAG/AFTRA student project). Dea Vise, CSA is 100% correct. Smart Producer/Directors will not shoot without a signed talent contract for fear of being held hostage or over-a-barrel with contract negotiations after the fact (which could force an expensive re-shoot). Smart actors should do the same.

    8. Dennis Baker Post author

      Hi Patrick, thanks for helping make my point. Most of the time actors do not attach an addendum/rider to the release to protect themselves. Smart producers, directors and actors will work together to see that all parties are protected.

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