Welcome to Street Legal

Welcome to Street Legal

“I saw him wreck a $100,000 boat because he liked the splash.” ~ Rene Russo as Catherine Banning, in The Thomas Crown Affair

So you want to make a movie. And you think you’re ready for it because you’ve been to film school or made a short or seen every Oscar-nominated film since 1929. Well let me tell you, you are in for a surprise.

The movie business is no different than flipping houses for cash. With real estate, the property owner spends a lot of time and money hiring skilled labor to transform an old building or home into a work of art. After years of blood, sweat, and tears, that ‘piece of art’ is then sold to the highest bidder, hopefully with a purchase price greater than the cost of the flip, and then the process starts all over again.

As the producer of a feature film, your job is to hire artists—the most skilled artists you can find within budget—lead them to their highest potential, make decisions, appear to have everything under control, have everything under control, and then persuade third parties to buy your product despite all odds. You are not an artist. You are a property owner. A CEO. A parent. A best friend. A teacher. A therapist. You are everything to everyone that works under you. And in order to take that job on successfully, you need more than an eye for color correction. You need street smarts.

Welcome to Street Legal.

My name is Katherine Imp. I’m a lawyer with a creative side and a filmmaker with a J.D. I love Chicago, Survivor, blue suede shoes, and finding new ways to impact the world. In 2010, I graduated law school a semester early to make a movie and pursue my dream of becoming a filmmaker. I knew that if I didn’t jump in with both feet before starting my legal career, I’d never get so much as a toe in later on. The film, now called Beauty Beneath the Dirt, documented my experience hiking the 2178.3-mile Appalachian Trail with my brother, Brandon, and best friend, Emily. I took on the role of director, producer, cinematographer, actor, sister, friend, ringleader, and long-distance hiker. It was the best and worst experience of my life.

Based on test screenings in 2011, I knew we had a film that would do well in theatres and on television, but I was a first-time filmmaker, and you can’t just call Oprah and ask her to put your film on OWN (believe me, I’ve tried). You need connections, and I figured the best way to make those connections was to create my own buzz with a limited theatrical release near the trail itself—thus came the Georgia to Maine, or G2M Tour. I chose the trail as my tour destination for business and personal reasons. From a business perspective, I knew that: (1) people near the trail would see the film no matter what, (2) newspapers would run features because of the film’s relationship to the Appalachian Trail, (3) our sponsors would provide free products to raffle and/or give away, and (4) travel expenses would be minimal (because screenings could be booked within 2 hours driving distance of one other). The plan worked. We completed a full-fledged 35-venue tour in 2 months, for under $3K, and recouped nearly all of the film’s production expenses. On a personal level, the tour was more than financially rewarding; it gave my brother and I an opportunity to reconnect with each other, with people from our past, and with fans and kindred spirits. As a result, 2012 was one of the best years of my life.

In 2013, I began to think of ways in which I could close the gap between my love of film and my legal career, and finally, after numerous nights of panic and angst, it hit me: entertainment law. Having tackled the contract and intellectual property matters first-hand with Beauty Beneath the Dirt, I knew not only what to expect, but also what to watch out for. Using this experience as a basis for change, I hit the pavement (and the books), and transitioned my career into entertainment law by creating a new practice area at my firm.

The last 4 years I’ve been collecting knowledge, or “street smarts,” from my mentors, friends, co-workers and colleagues, as well as from my own experiences. But for 2014, I’ve got a different goal in mind. It’s time to share that knowledge with the Chicago arts community.

Like many of you, I attended the 1st annual Chicago Film & Media Summit in the Cultural Center last October. And though I enjoyed the event tremendously, there was only one comment (made by a Los Angeles film producer) that stuck with me: “If Chicago doesn’t take itself seriously, then no one else will.”

There’s a lot of great work coming out of Chicago, and a lot of talented people in this city. But if the LA producer’s stereotype prevails, then the truth is irrelevant, and Chicago will never be seen as a competitive contender with Los Angeles and New York.

I want to help change that stereotype. And I’m going to use this column to do it.

Street Legal is a collection of real stories from real filmmakers with a hint of law, business, and industry facts thrown into the mix. More importantly, it’s a forum for Chicago filmmakers to learn from each other, grow, and break down false stereotypes.

Filmmakers have the power to tell stories that entertain, inspire, and impact the world. But without street smarts, you can’t sell the product. And if you can’t sell the product, that power (and expensive investment) is lost. I started this column with a quote. Read it again, and answer this question: are you in real estate or the business of crashing boats? If you like the splash, then this column is not for you. I’m in this business for the flip. And if that’s who you are, or who you want to be, then add Street Legal to your morning reads, and let’s get started.

Katherine (Kate) Imp is an entertainment attorney at Ramo Law PC and Chicago native. She specializes in film finance, production and distribution for clients in Illinois and across the country. Contact Kate at @KatherineImp or kate@ramolaw.com.

Disclaimer: The information in this column is intended for general information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.