My question concerns referencing branded objects in a screenplay. I’ve read that including name-brand references should be avoided in screenplays because you would need legal clearance in order to feature them.
That being said, what if my character drives a Chrysler LeBaron? Can’t I say he drives a beat-up Chrysler LeBaron? And not just as a description, but if it was mentioned in the dialogue as well.
Understandably, name brand references wouldn’t make or break my script, but I feel it adds a nice level of depth and detail to my characters if you know they like Gucci shoes and not fancy Italian boots.
I guess my question is, what are the do’s and don’ts of brand name references?
— Aaron Murphy
In a screenplay, you can do anything. You can have Ronald McDonald shank Elmo with a sharpened Barbie over a pack of Marlboros.
The trouble comes when you’re moving from the printed word to the projected image. The corporations who hold these trademarks and copyrights don’t look kindly on other people profiting off them, even if the usage is not necessarily disparaging.
So, when you set out to make a movie, someone is generally assigned the chore of getting permission to use other people’s copyrights and trademarks. These “permission slips” are called clearances. During the summer of 1993, while I was interning at Universal, this was my job. I helped do clearances for The War and Reality Bites, mostly working on props and set decoration.
How do you get permission? You ask.
A large part of the job is figuring out who to ask. In 1993, the Internet didn’t exist in anything approximating its current form, so my fingers got very fast at dialing New York information (212-555-1212) to track down corporate offices.
Once you get the right person on the phone (or email), you explain what the movie is, why you’re asking, and if they could sign and fax back the attached clearance form. As I mentioned in an earlier article, Nolo Press’s book Getting Permission has templates for clearance forms, and a lot of information about how to handle everything from artwork to music. You can also see a generic version of what we used for The Movie here: .pdf or .doc.
My assistant Chad handled the majority of the clearances for The Movie, mostly artwork and books featured as props. It’s tedious work, but not particularly brain-draining. (In fact, I wrote my first screenplay while doing clearances.)
How do you know what needs to be cleared, and what you can just get away with using/saying?
I fall back on my standard advice: as a writer, just do what’s best for the script. If that’s Gucci shoes and Chrysler LeBarons, knock yourself out. Don’t worry about phantom problems. Rather, focus on writing the best screenplay you can.
Down the road, when your great script gets ready to become a great movie, there will be producers and other clever people to help you stress out over clearances.