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The Entertainment Industry in 2020: Four Legal and Business Issues For Consideration

By Simon Pulman and Briana Hill

1. AB5 Brings Uncertainty: The new California Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) became effective on January 1, 2020. Originally created to codify the California Supreme Court’s decision in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles (2018) 4 Cal.5th 903 (Dynamex), and to address the increase of misclassification of workers as independent contractors, the drafting of AB5 is so broad that it greatly expands the definition of “employee” in a way that potentially reclassifies most independent contractors as employees. This has huge potential repercussions for many companies doing business in California, including those in the entertainment industry (which has traditionally been extremely reliant on independent contractors), as companies may now need to provide full employment benefits to individuals previously characterized as independent contractors.

While there are certain statutory exemptions, the exemptions do not cover traditional entertainment job categories.  There is currently very little guidance as to how the law will be interpreted and enforced, and how it will interact with guild rules. It is incumbent on all studios, producers, networks, and other entertainment companies to watch developments closely, and to consult with knowledgeable counsel when in doubt.

2. Continued Evolution in Streaming: The rise of streaming platforms has dominated the film and episodic programming business over the past few years. 2020 is poised to bring the most significant year of change yet, as new platforms such as HBO Max, Quibi and Peacock will join the recently launched Apple TV+ and Disney+, and incumbents such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. Each of these platforms is targeting a slightly different position in the marketplace, and the economics for content producers vary on a platform-by-platform basis based on the rights and territories that each discrete platform is presently seeking to acquire.

From a deal-making perspective, it is possible that the increased competition will put pressure on platforms to offer greater transparency into the performance of their content and potentially more meaningful participation for creators in the upside of successful series and movies. Additionally, it will be interesting to see if Netflix blinks with respect to its (to date) steadfast insistence on dropping all series on an all-at-once “binge” model, given the plaudits and positive buzz that Disney+ has received for releasing episodes of The Mandolorian on a weekly basis. Finally, Quibi is a truly interesting new entrant that is planning some fascinating creative experiments with short form and interactive content, in addition to providing producers with a business model that is arguably more favorable than some of its competitors.

3. Exclusivity Reigns in Podcasting: 2019 was a year of huge growth and continued maturation for the podcast industry. Mainstream coverage of the industry expanded significantly, many major celebrity names launched podcasts for the first time, and a number of big media conglomerates entered the space or materially increased investments in their podcast divisions. The maturing of the podcast industry has had notable effects on the business side of this burgeoning medium. Participants at all levels in the value chain have started to stake a claim to ownership of, or participation in, podcast rights and revenues. Moreover, the deal-making has become much more sophisticated. Prior to 2019, the dominant podcast distribution model was very simple – make your podcast available on as many ad-supported platforms as possible, and split revenues between stakeholders (usually the creator and the production company or network) (often in a straight 50/50 configuration). This began to change during 2019 as certain companies grew and engaged more experienced representation, and entrants such as Spotify and Luminary started to lock down exclusive rights to content.

Expect the podcast content arms race to heat up in 2020, as high-profile shows and creators commit exclusively to platforms in exchange for sizeable minimum guarantees. However, platforms that offer podcasts in combination with music (such as Spotify, Apple, iHeart, and Pandora) would appear to be best positioned in the market versus pureplay podcast subscription outlets because of their existing subscriber bases and the value proposition of bundling music with podcast (and, indeed, expect 2020 to be the year of the “music podcast”).

4. Gaming Grows: As Netflix Chairman and CEO Reed Hastings famously opined, Netflix is primarily competing with Fortnite rather than with other SVOD platforms. Expect 2020 to be a huge year for gaming, with the release of several big titles (such as Cyberpunk 2077 and The Last of Us 2) being followed by the impending launch of much-anticipated new consoles Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X in the fall.

The continued growth of gaming will fuel a corresponding growth in esports and “game-adjacent content culture” – the creation, consumption and interactive fan participation in content around the culture of videogames, via platforms such as Twitch, Mixer, YouTube and Instagram. All of the next-generation gaming platforms will include built in recording and streaming capabilities allowing gamers to easily create media and engage with other users. While this arguably implicates copyright issues for rightsholders, many of the game companies have taken a permissive stance regarding streaming (and other activities, such as creating derivative works), believing it to be helpful to their business – although distributors must also be cognizant of other issues such as right of publicity.

Additionally, as discussed in a previous blog, expect a flurry of announcements during 2020 and beyond with respect to entertainment extensions of videogame properties – most notably film and TV adaptations, but also podcasts and graphic novels. A significant portion of these will probably involve the original game developers and/or publishers in a meaningful way, as rightsholders understand the importance of maintaining a strong and consistent brand across platforms.

Other sectors of the entertainment business should ignore gaming at their peril. For more, we recommend reading “7 Reasons Why Video Gaming Will Take Over” by Matthew Ball.

Acquiring Videogame Properties for Film and TV: Considerations for Buyers

By Simon Pulman

The videogame industry is now the most profitable individual sector of entertainment, having experienced exponential growth over the past forty years. Great games can quickly generate a large and unusually engaged fanbase, and as a result it could be argued that games will be the single biggest source of major entertainment brands for the foreseeable future. A cursory glance at Twitch reveals tens or hundreds of thousands of viewers concurrently watching streamers playing games like Fortnite, The Witcher, Sekiro, Overwatch and Grand Theft Auto. Even indie titles like Hollow Knight, Stardew Valley and Untitled Goose Game can attract thousands of attentive viewers. The potential to grow videogame properties into multi-platform entertainment franchises is greater than ever.

Historically, television and film adaptations of videogames have been critical and commercial misfires. However, the general growth of gaming, the increased sophistication of storytelling in videogames, and the general demand for IP-based content (driven in part by the emergence of multiple new streaming platforms) has created a perfect storm. Accordingly, we are currently seeing more videogame adaptation deals than ever before, some of which are very complicated and extremely high level.

While the fundamental structure of acquisition or licensing deals for videogame properties is similar to that used when acquiring older forms of media such as books and articles, there are some specific considerations when dealing with videogame properties, some of which are listed below. It is strongly recommended that parties on both sides of the negotiation engage an attorney and/or agent who is familiar with both the film or TV (as applicable) and videogame businesses to negotiate the deal. It will be very difficult to close a deal without an understanding of the gaming world and what motivates its rightsholders.

  1. What is the “Property”? : Up until recently, it was relatively easy to define what a “game” was. Games came on disc, cassette, cartridge or CD sold as physical products through brick and mortar retailers for a one-time payment. Successful games yielded sequels and spinoffs (and sometimes “add ons”), but games were generally released in a fixed form. With the emergence of digital distribution and the concept of “games as a service,” that has gone out of the window. Games are now routinely and regularly patched, updated, supplemented and expanded via a combination of free and paid downloadable content (or “DLC”). For example, the game No Man’s Sky has been updated and expanded so comprehensively since its launch in 2016 that it is almost unrecognizable as an experience from the version released at launch. As a result, it is imperative that buyers understand what they are acquiring – and unless negotiated otherwise for a very specific reason, the “Property” that is granted to the buyer should include all elements, versions, expansions and content relating to a title, for as long as such title is supported. Ideally, all sequels and spinoff games would be included in the rights grant as well (but that is a more nuanced subject that may require some discussion).
  2. Investigate Third Party Interests: While other forms of properties (including novels and podcasts) can have complicated chain-of-title issues, videogames are particularly likely to have unforeseen ownership and/or approval issues complicating the acquisition process. Often the rights in the game may be owned and controlled by a publisher, but sometimes the actual creator or developer may have approval rights or other interests that need to be addressed. Things get even more complicated when dealing with Japanese properties, where there may be one or more intermediaries to deal with before one is able to negotiate directly with the rightsholder. It is important to ask the right questions at the very start of negotiations to be able to identify and address any specific issues.
  3. Discuss Controls and Approvals: While television and (particularly) film producers often view their medium as the pinnacle of artforms, it is important for producers to understand that – in many circumstances – a videogame publisher or developer does not need them. Many videogame rightsholders make millions or billions of dollars solely from videogame sales, which can then be supplemented through the sale of DLC and merchandise. Even independent developers may be able to make a good living through a combination of the right business model and smart engagement with their fanbase. As a result, rightsholders will often be extremely cautious about entering into any kind of arrangement that could tarnish or dilute their brands. No sophisticated rightsholder today would agree to the kind of agreement that yielded the likes of Super Mario Bros. (1993), Street Fighter (1994), BloodRayne (2006) or Tekken (2009), all of which were critically lambasted and bore little relation to their source material.

Indeed, many videogame rightsholders are unlikely to be prepared to enter into a traditional option purchase type arrangement where they are viewed as passive rightsholders without any kind of active involvement or approval. Producers therefore need to think carefully and walk a tightrope to ensure that they make the rightsholder feel invested and comfortable, without ceding control in a manner that could jeopardize their ability to set up and produce the project. Of course, if they can strike the right balance then the dividends – both creative and financial – could be spectacular.

Negotiating Digital Distribution Agreements

Business and Legal Issues to Watch in the Era of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and VHX

By Simon N. Pulman

Digital and direct distribution options have created new opportunities for producers seeking to leverage multiple platforms to find new revenue streams and audiences for their work. While the traditional “all rights” deal will continue to exist as long as there are major distributors willing to pay a minimum guarantee and give a certain exclusive category of films a theatrical push, many producers are now looking at entering into (and understanding) two or more concurrent distribution deals with different and hopefully complementary partners. The goal for many of these producers is to maintain greater control over distribution and marketing, maximize value for investors and unlock the potential of growing digital platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu to benefit both the individual film and the longer-term career of its producer.

It is now not unusual for the producer of a moderately budgeted film to have separate agreements in place for theatrical, traditional home video (i.e. DVD and Blu-Ray), television and video-on-demand, plus an additional agreement with a foreign sales agent with respect to international rights. Moreover, some filmmakers who are willing to do some of the marketing and distribution legwork may also seek to “carve out” the right to directly distribute their films through streaming sites such as Vimeo and VHX (the subject of a recent Indiewire article here). These direct distribution sites allow producers to retain the lion’s share of receipts from their films, but also push most marketing and promotional responsibilities onto the producer.

Faced with many potential options – and rights issues – what do filmmakers need to know about distribution agreements? At CDAS, we represent many filmmakers and other content producers entering into distribution and sales agreements with major and mini-major studios, sales agents, aggregators and service providers. Here are a few threshold issues to consider based upon the many deals that we see:

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