Mad Hot Clearances

Once again, a highly acclaimed documentary is nearly wrestled to the ground by the exorbitant cost of clearing the rights to music--including a ringtone--that appears in the film. Not talking about the soundtrack here, either, but the diagetic (i.e., in-story, on-camera) sound that permeates the real world where the filmmakers shot.

This time, it's Mad Hot Ballroom, directed by Marilyn Agrelo and produced by Amy Sewell. The filmmakers spent $140,000, 45% of their budget, to clear the rights. Stay Free! interviewed Sewell about the IP challenges they faced, which went well beyond the music:

Well, we had to watch out for billboards and Frito-Lay trucks all the time. But I usually didn't care, we would just shoot. The biggest danger with clearances is when they interfere with documenting real life. Something spontaneous like a cell phone ringing is different than a planned event. If filmmakers have to worry about these things, documentaries will cease to be documentaries! What happens when the girls go shopping and there's music playing in the stores? We were lucky because in our movie the music wasn't identifiable, but otherwise what are we supposed to do: walk up to the store manager and say, "Excuse me but can you turn off your radio?"
That sucks. Of course, we say that all the time when we go into stores. It can be an audio pain to edit a scene with a song playing through it.

How did Mad Hot Ballroom survive the copyright cartel?
[stay free! via waxy]
Previously: Clearing Tarnation cost approximately 2,200 times that film's $218 production budget.

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.

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greg [at] greg [dot ] org

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first published: June 23, 2005.

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