December 30, 2004

Check The Clearance, Clarence. And Make It A BIG Check.

The Center For Social Media conducted a study of the costs and effects of clearing intellectual property on independent documentary filmmakers. They look at the costs, the process, and the impact on how films are made and on what subjects. Then they make some recommendations.

To any filmmaker who thought they were the only one who had problems with clearing an image, a trademark or--heaven forbid--a piece of music, take comfort: it's an expensive pain in the ass for everyone. You just can't do anything about it. Yet.

Some eye popping examples of their key finding:
Rights clearance costs are high, and have escalated dramatically in the last two decades. [thanks in part to consolidation of film and photo archives (hello, Corbis, Getty...)]

  • Examples: 60% of the $1mm budget for the 1999 "American Experience" docu, Ella FitzgeraldóSomething to Live For went to clearances.
  • Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation, which supposedly cost all of $218 to make, cost over $400,000 to clear.
  • "There's a pivotal scene in Hoop Dreams, recalled Peter Gilbert, "where it's Arthur's 18th birthday and his mother said, 'Isn't it wonderful that he made it to 18?' and they sing 'Happy Birthday.' 'Happy Birthday' costs. They're brutal about it. You're not going to get a deal on 'Happy Birthday.'" It cost $15,000 to $20,000 for just one verse of "Happy Birthday."

    Untold Stories: Creative Consequences of the Rights Clearance Culture for Documentary Filmmakers
    [CSM, via boingboing]

  • Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

    Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

    comments? questions? tips? pitches? email
    greg [at] greg [dot ] org

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