Documentary filmmakers often face an uphill battle—due to high costs, wary sources and confusing contracts paired with limited time and funding.
In January 2018, they’ll have a new resource at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law. The school announced Wednesday that it will be offering free legal assistance to independent filmmakers at its new Documentary Film Legal Clinic, opening spring semester.
“It’s become clear that there are a lot of independent filmmakers who could use legal assistance, whether its training, contracts, IP, privacy or libel,” said Dale Cohen, the clinic’s director. “But they simply can’t afford to do it.”
The clinic, part of UCLA’s Ziffren Center for Media, Entertainment, Technology and Sports Law, will provide pro bono legal assistance to filmmakers from 14 second- and third-year UCLA law students, who will work under the guidance of Cohen and another experienced attorney.
UCLA’s reputation for entertainment law and proximity to Hollywood means a lot of students at the school are already interested in the legal side of documentaries, according to Cohen. Many have experience in documentary filmmaking themselves.
“A lot of students come here wanting to get into the film business or media law,” Cohen said. “And the skills they learn in this clinic will extend beyond film business.”
Students won’t just work with clients. They’ll also go through simulations and seminars to learn about important legal newsgathering steps, such as filing public records requests and copyright clearances.
They’ll also learn about and get experience providing legal advice on defamation, libel and privacy, which Cohen says are the top concerns of many independent filmmakers he’s spoken with. While many documentarians want to expose the corruption and criminal behavior of powerful public figures, they’re often threatened with lawsuits.
And when filmmakers are discouraged from making such documentaries, entire communities lose out on a chance to talk about crucial issues and make changes.
That’s one of the main reasons Cohen says he’s excited for the clinic: In an era of dwindling newsroom resources, its important to ensure that communities are getting the content they need to make informed decisions.
“It’s going to be great for students in terms of developing skills and hopefully long-term relationships, terrific for the filmmakers who really need the help, and for the communities, who need to get their stories out,” Cohen said.
The documentary filmmaker clinic is one of many that UCLA plans to open in the upcoming year. Other new clinics will focus on immigration advocacy and music law. In the last year, UCLA has opened legal clinics for immigration policy, human rights and services for veterans.