Creatives: Should You Sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement?

NDA’s or “Non-Disclosure Agreements” float around the entertainment and media business a lot, and they’re primarily used to keep ideas confidential. Film studios often use them to make sure you don’t steal their ideas or methods, and some production companies won’t take a meeting with you unless you sign one. As a result, some less experienced writers and producers also try to get people to sign before they share a movie concept, screenplay, or other creative idea. The question is:

When should you sign one, or should you sign one at all?

I’m not an attorney, I’m a producer, so this isn’t legal advice, but it may help you decide when it is and isn’t appropriate to sign an NDA. For me, it’s about the relationship dynamic with the person asking you to sign. For instance, if Steven Spielberg wants me to sign an NDA before he hires me on his film crew, chances are I’ll do it. Likewise, if Disney wants me on their team but asks me to sign an NDA because of the secrets I’ll be exposed to, once again, I’ll probably sign.

Ralph Winter, long time producer of major movies like X-Men, Wolverine, Planet of the Apes, and the recent The Promise is involved in big studio projects. He told me “I sign them all the time. It gets me in the door, and with major studios, I’m not really worried about any repercussions.”

In a similar way, Jonathan Bock, founder of Grace Hill Media orchestrates the marketing campaigns for major studios and networks. His response? “I have zero issues signing a standard NDA. Most of the time it’s just something their lawyers make them do – like drug company’s lawyers forcing their marketers to warn you in their commercials that you might get side effects – they don’t want to do it but it’s a legal thing.”

Dean Batali, writer and producer for the new Hallmark series Good Witch said: “I’ve probably had to sign four or five. One was for a Disney show based on a Marvel Superhero, and I couldn’t tell anyone I was developing it because they didn’t want word to get out that this superhero was going to have a TV series about him. Or maybe it was a her. I signed an NDA so I can’t say…”

From my perspective, when lower level producers, production companies, or writers ask me to sign an NDA, I don’t sign them. After all, what’s the benefit for me? All signing an NDA does is expose me to a future lawsuit should I ever do anything even close to that idea. When it comes to those producers and writers, Dean Batali puts it this way: “I’ve always wondered what they were so concerned about. It’s not the idea that matters so much as the execution of the idea. With the Marvel superhero for Disney it made sense, but most of the ones I have signed felt like the producer was being overly worried.”

Producer and attorney Shun Lee Fong, founder of Greenhouse Arts and Media in Hollywood on less experienced producers and writers demanding NDA’s: “I don’t sign those NDAs, and I never recommend that other producers sign them. It’s not that it is legally or ethically wrong for someone to ask you to do so, but it does give an indication of the level of sophistication of the person who is making the request, because it suggests that the person is a beginner or an amateur. Aside from that, there are a number of reasons to not sign an NDA. For starters, it puts the producer into a legal position in which the writer can threaten him or her for working on a separate project that may contain even only the barest hints of similarity to the writer’s project. That is to say, it invites legal harassment from the writer. It also displays a level of distrust by the writer – who may understandably be skittish because he/she has been burned by some other producer – but that distrust at the start of a creative relationship is not something I want in the mix if I am going to be working with someone. Typically, it’s just not a good sign of things to come.

Shun Lee puts the bottom line in perspective: “Ultimately, it’s about the motivation behind asking for an NDA. If, for example, George Lucas was trying to keep secret the fact that Darth Vader was Luke’s father in the then-forthcoming film The Empire Strikes Back, of course he understandably would want an NDA signed by everyone involved. I would have signed that one for all the obvious reasons. But that is a very different motivation than those of most fledgling writers however, who want producers to sign NDAs because they are afraid the producers might steal their ideas – which again shows a lack of trust in the relationship and a lack of understanding of how the creative process works.

To sign or not to sign? As Hamlet said, “That is the question.”

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  1. everyone is protecting their position. i dont have a problem. i dont want to steal their idea or exploit them. not a problem for me – plenty of ideas and movies out there

  2. Part 2 for this series should be “Lack of Trust in the Relationship and a Lack of Understanding of How the Creative Process Works”. I’ve signed them, but bringing more understanding how the creative process works will help amateurs not to act like amateurs when the chance of a breakthrough comes their way. My 2 cents.

      1. Thank you Phil. I’ve been in situations where you don’t want to look like a novice as the film industry appears to eat the weak. I’ve met so many budding filmmakers they’re afraid of having their brilliant idea stolen.

  3. We have had way too many times when we pitch an idea, then see something similar get produced without us. How do you protect yourself if you don’t have someone sign an NDA? Companies can love an idea, decide to change a few things and do it on their own. Creatives have no protection in the process and are at the mercy of those they pitch too. This is a tricky subject, but I’ve taken some bad hits with people running with an idea of mine before. It’s painful and costly and the little guy has no repercussion.

    1. It’s a good question, but not as big a problem as a lot of people think. I know, because I actually created a concept, produced a sizzle real, and a producer took it to a network and made two seasons of the show without me! (And don’t get me started on the fact that he was a Christian.) But iIn spite of that, I’m not paranoid. I think God is bigger than our bad experiences, and I want to keep focused on the future, not the past. Yes there are jerks out there. But I’ve heard and read thousands of pitches and screenplays, and I’m not sure I’ve read one yet that I would sign an NDA for…

  4. Although it’s a different angle on the discussion above, actors are asked to sign NDAs all the time. Why? Because, commercial advertisers don’t want their new product announced before the commercial airs or a pharmaceutical company doesn’t want any potentially damaging information getting out there about their medicine. In fact, a typical pharmaceutical NDA will literally say, “you might be exposed to statistics and/or information which could potentially be perceived as negative.” Obviously, they don’t want that information presented to the public, especially from an actor. Theatrically, we sign them for shows that might involve new character introductions or changes. Or, we might be in a scene that involves a radical plot change. Most shows don’t want to lose the power of surprise. Like Dean Batali, I’ve signed a few Marvel NDAs, even before I could enter the audition room. Needless to say, it was worth it! That’s all I can legally say. But, I get it. Studios and advertisers want total control of the information we’ll be exposed to. They want their PR departments to handle the publicity, not an unfiltered actor. It’s far too easy for an actor to get a script for a popular show or film and feel an overwhelming urge to pass the secrets on to their social media network (whatever gets us more attention and a bump up in our “likes”). We all want control and we generally don’t trust people so I get their purpose. Even so, it sure feels weird signing one. I want to say, “Seriously, you don’t trust me? Well, you would if you knew me!”

    1. Well, I know you Mark, and I certainly don’t trust you… :-). Actually, that’s a great confirmation. You’ve acted in a number of major network dramas, and your advice is right on. If it’s a big studio or network, fine. But chances are, if a novice actor or writer asked you to sign one before he or she shows you their screenplay or show concept, I’d bet you’d pass…

      1. I would indeed pass, if it was a novice actor, writer or production company. And thanks for confirming my years of suspicion… I knew you didn’t trust me. I should have taken that Avid out of your editing suite when I had the chance. Darn it!

  5. Interesting discussion… I don’t mind signing an NDA when there’s material that’s actually worth protecting. I’ve signed them many times with no concerns. But I was recently asked to sign an NDA on a project that was about a public persona, and all the materials they wanted me to read were pretty much available on the internet. So… huh? All that did was tell me the producers were either paranoid or didn’t know what they were doing, and they weren’t worth taking seriously….. As for a writer demanding an NDA? That feels utterly amateur to me. I would never ask for one, and I would almost certainly pass on reading any material where a writer demanded one.

  6. exactly! shouldn’t be a problem for anyone regardless of status/ranking in the business, amateur or seasoned… to want protection and be able to sign an NDA.

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