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The Gong: First Row Films, probably, and possibly others

THIS MONTH'S The Gong - a wake-up call to late payers - should probably go to First Row Films Inc. of Newbury Park, California, although it's still not entirely clear who bears responsibility for payment for an invoice sent in November 2019 not being made until late July 2020. I accept that some of the responsibility for payment taking so long lies with myself. So rather than apportioning blame, this article looks at what we can learn from such late payment experiences, especially when dealing with clients abroad who undertake to pay you via Paypal.

In autumn 2019 I was contacted by a producer for The History Channel - or at least he said he was a producer for The History Channel. His email ended in, rather than anything with history in it. While I'm sure it's standard practice for independent producers working on behalf of big-name TV channels to contact freelances and offer them paid work, I should in retrospect have asked for more details of his relationship with The History Channel.

The producer who contacted me was seeking to use my still photos of woodwoses (wildmen) carved on baptismal fonts in East Anglian churches for an Ancient Monster Quest documentary. I was offered $300 US for a licence for a single use in their documentary. I was told to invoice The History Channel, which I duly did - the first time I'd invoiced a client in the US.

I did ask for details of who I should bill in The History Channel, but heard nothing, so I just sent my invoice to The History Channel to the producer. I negotiated payment by Paypal to save on bank charges. I put my standard "Strictly 30 days" at the bottom of the invoice, knowing full well that England's Late Payment of Commercial Debts Act was unenforceable in The History Channel's home state of Illinois. I sent the photos along with the invoice.

I also asked them to let me know when that Ancient Monster Quest special would be broadcast, and if there was any chance of them sending me a link to it or its webpage on The History Channel website for my records.

Then... nothing much happened. I eventually got an email saying "accounts" were trying to deal with it. I noticed more and more people got copied into this email, and I was passed on to different people I should instead be talking to. Some of them had email addresses from First Row Films, who seemed to have a long pedigree as makers of documentaries.

Then I was told they were having problems paying me by Paypal. It turned out to be my fault: it was such a long time since I'd used Paypal that the debit card associated with my Paypal account had expired. My bad. I sorted it out. If you're going to use Paypal irregularly, do check that your account's up to date!

Then things got even slower. By then I was talking Rob from of First Row Films, who eventually told me I needed to go to his account on Paypal and "request payment" from his (apparently personal) account. That was a new one on me. So when you negotiate payment by Paypal, it's best to ask whether you will need to "request payment" from their account, or whether you can expect it to be paid into yours. It could save you a few months, as it would have done in my case.

Still no money in my account, at this point. And Rob wasn't responding to my emails any more. So I contacted The History Channel via their "comments" webpage and asked them what was going on, whether the Ancient Monster Quest documentary ever existed, whether it was anything to do with them, whether First Row Films were involved, whether I was invoicing the right people and when the documentary would be out.

Nothing. And then suddenly, $300 appeared in my Paypal account from Rob, nearly nine months after invoicing. I emailed him to thank him, but got no reply. I never did find out when the Ancient Monster Quest special on woodwoses was broadcast, or whether it even exists, despite asking a dozen times. Let me know via the Freelance if you stumble across it!

So what have we learnt from this experience? To recap:

  • If you haven't used Paypal for a while and expect to be paid via Paypal, do check your account settings are up to date.
  • Also, before you send your work, check whether you will need to "request payment" by Paypal, and from whom (from which account), or whether you can just expect the money to be paid into your Paypal account.
  • If you're in negotiations with a producer who tells you they're working "for" a big-name outlet but who uses a personal email, ask about their relationship to that outlet. If you have any concerns, try to contact that outlet to ask about the production. Don't be afraid to ask your client whether it would be easier for them if you invoiced the production company rather than the household name news outlet.
  • Double-check who you should be invoicing. It's common practice for independent production companies to be invoiced by and pay sub-contractors (like me in this case) and then bill that big media outlet for all their expenses, but a lot of time was wasted with this "invoice the History Channel" thing. Do this before you send your work.
  • Finally, copyright experts advise that I should - before I sent the photos and invoiced - have registered my copyright in the photos in question in the United States with the US Copyright Office. Copyright in your works needs to be registered in the US before you can bring a legal claim for copyright infringement in that jurisdiction: see the Freelance Fees Guide. If I'd done this, and let my client (or whoever it was I was dealing with) know by putting it on the invoice, it may have had more of an effect in getting whoever-it-was to pay up more quickly.