Film Festival Season: Five Last-Minute Music Clearance Tips

Annie Lin/The Rights Workshop December 7, 2010

To a distributor, a great film with rights and permissions cleared in advance is like a beautifully wrapped Christmas present, complete with bow on top. It’s a good idea to get the music cleared before your film screens at high-profile events like Sundance because locks in more favorable rates and gives you an opportunity to present your film as an attractive, hassle-free investment.

If you haven’t cleared the music in your film yet and Sundance is around the corner, it’s not too late to secure the rights. Here are some tips for getting the rights you need.

Follow the Rules
Record labels and music publishers follow a specific protocol when it comes to negotiating music rights. We could write (and have written!) an entire book about the subject, since it’s what we do for a living. If you must clear a song, you should put together a simple, clear music clearance form and submit it for review to the appropriate contact at Warner, EMI, Universal, etc. No one has time to review that PDF of your script; no one wants to actually read your discursive, piquant letter of advocacy requesting use of the song. Just keep it short and easy and make sure it ends up in the right inbox because these companies are enormous. And if you need a sample clearance form or the appropriate contacts, just hit us up and we’ll be happy to help you out.

Stay Humble, Manage Your Expectations
Many filmmakers are elated to be accepted to a brand-name festival and are surprised to discover that labels and publishers are not as elated. In fact, announcing that you’re exhibiting can sometimes even add a thousand dollars or more to the quote. You don’t need to present your film as the best, most critically-lauded movie ever made to get an answer to the question of how much the song costs. You do need to provide the appropriate information when it is requested, like total production budget.

Consider the World of Sound-Alike Recordings
Does that Frank Sinatra song cost half your film budget? If you must include well-known songs but find budget to be a challenge, you may consider the world of sound-alike master recordings, which can effectively cut your licensing fees in half. Just make sure that you clear the song itself and that you have obtained permission to use a non-Sinatra recording.

Think About Budget-Friendly Alternatives
Is there an easier-to-clear song that could take the place of the song you haven’t cleared yet? Could you replace the song for the festival and license the original later? And if you decide to use the song at the festival, are you prepared with a replacement in the event that you can’t afford or obtain the rights later? These are things that are worth considering if you are walking into a festival with music that has not been cleared.

Retain Your Dignity
Desperation doesn’t win you any points in the dating game, and it certainly isn’t going to win you any points in the music clearance arena. That said, there is a distinction between desperation and urgency. Instead of written pleas or outright groveling, consider deadline dates, large-point font and a formally-worded sternness that conveys priority. Colors are good too; we personally like red.

Stay Calm
If you don’t get the rights before the screening, it is entirely possible that no one will notice. The difficulty comes when you are trying to secure a distribution deal or when you are trying to license the rights after you’ve secured the deal and after you’ve screened at the festival. To at least benefit from the consideration that you are proceeding in good faith, start the clearance before the festival. And don’t forget to call us if you need help.

This article appeared originally in The Rights Workshop's web site December 3, 2010, and is republished with permission. The Rights Workshop can be reached at (415) 561-3333; email