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Advice for using music and brands

A Masterton local, seasoned solicitor and cinephile is donating his vast legal knowledge to help the next generation of Kiwi filmmakers get their work on screen.

Michael Stephens has worked as a commercial, entertainment and media lawyer for over three decades – and has provided legal counsel to the production crews of successful New Zealand films, including Black Sheep, Us and the Gaming Industry and When Night Falls.

In between running his own law firm and advising some of the bigger names in the industry, Stephens makes time for one of the projects closest to his heart.

Each year, “the lawyer with a film habit” partners with a small number of independent film projects – and provides up-and-coming directors, producers and screenwriters with legal advice and administrative support, all free of charge.

Having secured his pro bono support with everything from navigating copyright agreements to negotiating distribution contracts, several of Stephens’ young clients have gone on to screen their completed projects at New Zealand and international film festivals.

One such project was Shut Eye, a romantic thriller based around the ASMR phenomenon, by Auckland couple Tom Levesque and Eva Trebilcos – one of the darlings of the 2022 New Zealand International Festival. Shut Eye, supported by Wairarapa-based producer Celia Jaspers, will screen as part of the Wairarapa Film Festival this weekend.

Stephens is also a long-time supporter of and “legal helpdesk” for the Outlook for Someday, a charitable trust dedicated to empowering young New Zealanders to tell their stories in film. This week, the trust will run two film-making workshops for 14-20-year-olds, held at Wairarapa and Kuranui Colleges.

Stephens said he often meets young and emerging filmmakers who have “an innate ability for storytelling” – but are operating on a shoestring budget, and without in-depth knowledge of the entertainment industry.

For “their unique and interesting stories” to be seen, community support and networks are vital.

“New Zealand has become a centre of filmmaking excellence, and young filmmakers are the future of content creation,” Stephens said.

“There are many people who have the talent, but their work may not be shown because they don’t have the resources. This is where community comes in – someone like me can provide some counsel and help manage the legal limitations so they can get their work in front of an audience. It’s giving people the opportunity to start a career – giving people the tools, making things accessible, and showing them what’s possible.”

Stephens said one of the most common legal stumbling blocks for young film-making is the inclusion of trademarked items – and often assists with seeking permission for use of brands, products, and music and, if necessary, purchasing rights.

“If you don’t get these necessary clearances, you can end up the subject of legal action – which can be very expensive, and can make it difficult to screen your film. Sorting out permission ahead of time can help with peace of mind.

“I supported one filmmaker who needed permission from the Jaguar company to use one of their cars in a shot. A film student needed to seek permission to use a particular song, which was critical to her storyline, and she had to buy the rights – about $2000 for less than two music of music. “There’s a lot to think about.

“Another filmmaker needed to recreate old news footage from the 1970s, as it was cheaper than obtaining the original footage. Even if you’re filming a local street scene, you may need to ask for a permit. It’s not always straightforward – but it’s always interesting.”

Other legal issues can include potential defamation claims, contractual agreements with cast and crew, and ensuring the filmmaker’s own intellectual property is watertight before distribution.

Stephens said it has been “fabulous” to see his clients go on to make more ambitious projects. Levesque and Trebilcos of Shut Eye, for example, are to debut their latest film project at the Cannes Film Festival Market.

“It’s amazing when you meet a young person who just has an innate ability for filmmaking – you see it straight away.
“I’ve always admired the tenacity of our up-and-coming filmmakers – they don’t have the budget for a studio or an art department, so they use what they’ve got. And they’re able to tell very rich stories, original, unique stories.”

“It takes a lot of chutzpah [nerve].”

    Shut Eye will screen on Saturday, May 27, at Regent3 Cinemas, starting at 7.15pm.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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