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.”