If you are an aspiring filmmaker, at some point in time it will be important to consider the legal side of movie making – and for that a media lawyer is essential. More than most other professions, media deals involve a lot of contracts, as one has to consider that the four stages of the film cycle: development, production, post and then distribution. Each will carry different types of contracts. To get a broad perspective on the legal framework in media, I chatted with media lawyer Fiona Robertson…
Michelle: When you were in law school was media your focus?
Fiona: I did a Media Law subject and of course intellectual property and they both triggered my interest.
But I had actually always wanted to be a journalist and I think the idea of combining the two careers was the most appealing aspect of the career to me. I literally stood on the steps in my graduation gown and told the person next to me that I was going to be a media lawyer. And now I am.
Michelle: What was the first legal assignment you had in the entertainment industry?
Fiona: I actually started out as a production co-ordinator for a TV program as I wanted to learn the media industry from the bottom up (this decision was assisted by the fact that there was a recession at the time so jobs for young lawyers were thin on the ground). I worked on a surf programme where I did call sheets and booked crew … and did a basic contract or two. I moved across to a legal position about six months later and was given a programme to look after. It was a candid camera style programme and it was a good one to learn on – fast turnarounds, lots of public interaction and a very experienced production crew.
My second program was ‘WildLife with Olivia Newton-John’. That was a great production where Olivia and the rest of the cast traveled the globe and shot amazing animal stories. I once had to tell the producers that we would not use a clip of Olivia singing a Beatles song to a gorilla as we did not have the music rights.
After I said no, they made me sit in a room with the entire crew and watch it on a big screen and then asked me again if they could use it. My answer was still no. They were absolutely furious with me.
I imagine that from a production perspective it was the money shot, but because it had an international audience it had to be properly cleared.
I think the programme that took me from a young lawyer to a lawyer was ‘Australia’s Most Wanted’. I had to vet every word and image to ensure we complied with the strict defamation and contempt laws of Australia. The producer was an amazing newsman – years in the industry.
We had some amazing arguments over words and phrases, what could be used when and where, what was too sensationalist to use and what could stay.
One day he sent me a draft script for the next show that opened with the lines ‘…the eager beaver cleaver heaver …’ in reference to a very violent knife attack. I ran down to his office shaking the script in his face, possibly purple with rage, but he had simply done it to get my reaction. He got one!
Michelle: I know you worked on some Australian soaps, which ones?
Fiona: The two big ones, I was the in-house lawyer at Grundy Television and so I looked after Neighbours for five years (the Kennedy family years). Then I did a short stint with Home and Away when I first went to Channel Seven as their Legal Counsel. Neighbours was quite intense as the BBC was its UK broadcaster and they are pretty stringent on clearances, showing products and storylines. They did an episode where the cast all went to the races and I made sure that none of the horses that ran in the ‘race’ actually existed. In case you ever strike this problem in your life, racehorses cannot have more than 18 characters in their name so if you make it a long name then it won’t exist. I met some true fanatics whilst working on Neighbours. I didn’t get a credit (lawyers rarely do) but some man in England still found out my name and used to ring me to get me explain the complex storylines to him.
Michelle: What was your interest in coming to Dubai, was it media?
Fiona: I came in 2008. I was looking to do something else, having been in my job at Channel Seven for nearly 10 years (and working on hundreds of programmes, dozens of massive sporting events and loads of other marketing projects).
Dubai seemed interesting and challenging and it has certainly delivered on this and more. I think the media landscape is intriguing here. It has so much room to grow as an industry – across all facets of media as a business and as a consumer product.
Our regional storytellers have so much more content to give to the world than is currently being delivered.
Michelle: What do you think needs to happen to develop the UAE’s media industry?
Fiona: Obviously media covers so much these days. Film as an industry takes some time to get moving. The influx of international films is good for the development of local talent but it needs to be augmented with an extra effort for the creation of local productions.
Developing a functioning local film industry takes time and effort – it may take another five years to see the results of programmes that are undertaken now.
This means looking at all aspects of film as a business – financing methods, production assistance, distribution opportunities and co-production deals with other countries. I think there are some entities that are doing a great job and I hope that the governments across the Emirates continue to support them all.
Television is interesting as an industry here – quite different to other markets. Remarkably, with over 20 countries in the satellite footprint and a wildly diverse audience within those boundaries, the production industry is quite small in the UAE and surely has room to grow both in numbers and financially.
I find it interesting that Arabic content is never provided with English sub-titles for use in the region as there are many local shows that I would watch (and read). With the enormous expat audience here, I am surprised that this is not more common.
Importantly, providing English subtitles on Arabic content would provide another gateway of understanding between expats and the local Arab population. Also, my children are learning Arabic and it would be a huge boost to their language skills.
Michelle: What advice would you give first time film makers here about the business side of film/media?
Fiona: Paperwork, paperwork and then paperwork. International best practice dictates that you get signed releases and contracts from everyone and this should be done here as well. Wouldn’t it be awful if a distributor liked your film and asked for your paperwork and you didn’t have any? A connected international distributor will not take content that is not accompanied by proper releases.