This Sunday, millions of viewers tuned into the annual Academy Awards telecast to see which of this year’s nominees would win the industry’s top prize. As with all award ceremonies that dole out honors based on subjective criteria, the days (and now, thanks to Twitter, moments) following the Oscars bring on a barrage of passionate opinions, explanations, and theories for the wins and losses of the night.
Without comment on the artistic value or social contributions of the Best Picture nominees, from a legal standpoint, the makers of “Boyhood” accomplished something no other film in the category attempted: they shot the movie without contractual guarantees that their stars would remain involved for the entire 12-year shoot. Under Section 2855 of the California Labor Code, a “contract to render personal service,” like the kind actors and actresses typically ink before a movie, may not be enforced beyond seven (calendar) years from its start date.
Although the law has been on the California books, in its earliest form, since 1872 in the Civil Code (later streamlined and recodified in 1937 under the Labor Code), the law is commonly referred to as the “De Havilland Law” after actress Olivia De Havilland (who won the Oscar for Best Actress in 1947 and 1950). In 1944, the actress successfully sued Warner Brothers, which sought enforcement of her seven-year contract to include the length of various suspensions she accumulated over the contract term. See De Havilland v. Warner Brothers. Until this decision, studios exercised a great deal of power in extending the length of contracts by adding suspension periods to the end of the contract term, which effectively kept many young, up-and-coming stars under exclusive employ for longer than seven years.
Today, the “De Havilland Law” is an underlying doctrine of entertainment law drafting, yet rarely plays a role in the creation of contracts for movie actors; the 12-year “Boyhood” shoot stands out among the typical, studio-produced films that seek prompt returns on often-large budgets. In fact, a large part of the movie’s critical acclaim focused on this uniquely longer timeline in storytelling. Thus, without the ability to contractually obligate his actors, director Richard Linklater had to sell the experience of making the movie, especially for the young male actor, Ellar Coltrane, that Linklater cast as the main subject of the story. In an interview with New York Times Magazine, Linklater said that the goal was for Coltrane and his parents to view the role as “a positive thing in his life and a fun thing to be involved in every year.”
It is unclear what, if any, contracts were created for the main cast. Linklater’s longtime lawyer and “Boyhood” producer John Sloss explained in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter: “You sign everyone six ways to Sunday but…after seven years, they can just do what they want.” The De Havilland Law does not prohibit the creation of a contract that can last beyond seven years, but rather, the enforcement of that contract after the seven years have lapsed, so it is certainly possible that each of the actors signed agreements at the film’s outset. However, an NPR interview with Ethan Hawke (who was nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category for his role in the movie) seems to indicate no contracts were made at all: “We never had any deals. It was just, ‘Do you want to get together on Wednesday and keep doing this project?’” Regardless, the producers’ inability to guarantee their cast through the completion of filming marks an infrequent appearance of the De Havilland Law’s effect on movie making.