The Work

March 7, 2010 11:43 AM

And the Oscar Goes To...

Posted by Ed Shanahan

In the days before the red carpet is rolled out and all eyes turn to Hollywood for the eighty-second annual Academy Awards, it’s business as usual for Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger entertainment attorneys Bonnie Eskenazi and Candace Carlo. And why not. Just because three of their clients--Avatar director and Academy Award winner James Cameron, film score composer and Academy Award winner Hans Zimmer, and Food, Inc. co-director Robert Kenner--are among this year’s Academy Award nominees doesn’t mean the dealmaking and the litigating stop. 

After all, the attorneys--Carlo is a transactional lawyer who chairs the firm's entertainment practice and Eskenazi is a litigator specializing in entertainment industry disputes--and their colleagues at this top Los Angeles-based entertainment shop are used to handling top-of-the-marquee, opening credits talent. Greenberg Glusker’s client list--which includes Tom Cruise, Madonna, Sherry Lansing, and Warren Beatty--reads like a Hollywood Reporter power list.

Carlo and Eskenazi spoke with us Friday about representing the entertainment industry's big names, how the practice is changing, and whether life as an entertainment lawyer is any different when a client has an Oscar perched on a mantel.

Hi, Bonnie, hi, Candace. So we’re just a couple of days from the biggest annual event in Hollywood and you’ve done work for a few Oscar contenders this year. I guess we know who you’re each pulling for in the hyped Avatar/Hurt Locker race.

Candace Carlo: [Hurt Locker director] Katherine Bigelow is incredibly talented, and she's made a very moving film, but of course I hope Jim [Cameron] wins. Jim is a brilliant filmmaker.

Bonnie  Eskenazi: Avatar is a film that really has changed the way we view motion pictures.

CC: We handled Jim's entire deal on Avatar. As Bonnie points out, it's an entirely new system of filmmaking. There's new camera work. He created new cameras that people in the filmmaking community now are clamoring to use. He has an enormous amount of freedom creatively.

Has that freedom come from what he’s already made or from having good lawyers?

CC:  He has certain precedents that allow him that creativity.

BE: We've represented him for a long, long time, at least 15 years. [Founding partner] Bert Fields is Jim's primary lawyer.

CC: I've worked on a couple of films for him. Most recently I did a film for him that is currently shooting in Australia, but Bert works on all of his films. And [partner] Bob Marshall has worked on the films, too.

Bert Fields is a legend in the entertainment world and in the legal field, and, well, he's been around awhile. What is he doing to ensure that all these high-powered, and influential, clients will stay with the firm for a good long time?

CC: He definitely involves other lawyers on virtually all deals.

BE: The type of exposure that we've gotten with respect to Bert's clients and the matters that he's worked on has enabled us to branch out and develop our own client base, separate and apart from Bert's. Bert's deals are typically exciting and innovative and challenging. That has enabled us to raise our own profiles as separate lawyers from Bert Fields.

What's an example of a client that had nothing to do with Bert.

CC: I handled a Lord of the Rings deal that didn't come in through Bert. It came in through Bonnie--the firm represented Hans Zimmer on some litigation connected to his score of the movie.

BE: I've been working with Hans for ten years.…The first time was for The Lion King, which was a film and then it was going to become a play. While Disney can use a score in any way they want, they still have to pay [Zimmer] a percentage. It's a significant percentage of anything they receive. So  Disney, its motion picture division, licensed the Lion King score to its startup theatrical division for basically bupkus, for a tiny ridiculous amount.

CC: That’s not unusual…

BE: But it's not OK. They were trying to say they didn't use the music in the show. But we went to see the play. And any time you hear that opening piece, it’s in the commercials, that is Hans. And when you hear it, you immediately know it's The Lion King. The position that Disney took was ridiculous. It has impact on the vertical integration issues. It's a real issue for both transactional lawyers and for litigators. The studios try to license the works between divisions for little or nothing, to give a boost to the other division.

CC: Which is why we put in our transactions that those licenses must be at market rate.

Hans is nominated for an Oscar, and he's won in the past. Is it meaningful to you, as these nominees' lawyers, if they win--does it affect your work or the business?

CC: Certainly it means stature, but for actors and directors of a certain stature, the [awards] don't necessarily translate into more roles, since they're already big names. Hans and Jim are sought out, they're always going to get work. For someone like Robbie Kenner [nominated for best documentary feature], it probably will make a difference for him. The others are of such of stature that it won't make a big difference.

Will you go to the awards this year? 

CC: They're exciting for a while, but you only want to do it once.

BE: Sometimes it's more fun to just stay home and relax with family and friends, in your jeans, and watch.

The winners never thank their lawyers.

CC: No, that doesn't happen. It did once, when Oliver Stone won for Born on the 4th of July, he thanked Bob Marshall.

BE:  From our perspective, our job is to just enable them and not get in the way of what they want to do.

Still, it seems exciting and glamorous, at least from the outside.

CC:  We both love what we do. This is very interesting, satisfying work, legally. It's an interesting and exciting part of the business. And there are perks that you get as entertainment lawyers that lawyers in the insurance industry don’t get. 

BE: I agree 100 percent. I've always loved what I've done, and I've done entertainment since I started practicing. I find it the most legally interesting aspect of the law, protecting someone's artistic [license]. I started practicing in 1985, at the very start of the digital technology boom. It's added to the legal challenges we face. I can’t think of a better career.

CC: It is fascinating, the technology has changed it so much. How films are marketed, how television is produced, how do you monetize the Internet so it becomes as lucrative as other forms of entertainment, like video games. One of the things I worked on was giving the rights to one of the Tom Clancy books for a video. It ties back to what we do, rights acquisitions--how do you take those rights and express them in an entertainment medium.

What's the next big change coming that will affect your work?

CC: Video delivery. The big sea change is going to come with video-on-demand, where you click the button on your computer and there’s the movie. VOD, that will explode, and that is a sea change in terms of the way the business is being run.

BE: There are cost implications, since instead of manufacturing, you’re able to push a button. That impacts the litigation and transactional side. As part of these profit participations, studios get to deduct the cost of manufacturing these DVDs , there are all kinds of piracy issues that are involved, there are going to be corporate issues. The studios are going to want to own the delivery system.

CC: The major studios got together to try and put together Internet delivery of films. One of the big things is going to be how much money is put in the pot that the artist shares. 

BE: That's evolving.

CC: And one of the big things, you might have seen in The New York Times last Sunday, with artists of the level of Jim Cameron or Tom Cruise, this first dollar gross [sharing in the profits from the first ticket sales] that would be automatic for people of that level, [the studios] now are trying to do more adjusted gross deals, to get more money in before they start paying out anything. That's a transition that's already been happening in the industry. There is very much a transition away from that kind of share. That is hotly contested. We want to protect the artists’ ability to earn off these films. 

Have you encountered any challenges as women working with and in the entertainment industry? 

BE: We're lucky to be in the business, because a lot of women in the industry have risen to important levels of power. Look around, you've got many studio heads that are women. You've got a lot of general counsel in the studios that are women, network heads, let alone women that run divisions underneath them. It's an industry where the gender gap has made more progress rather than less compared to other industries (like investment banking). Ours is less male-dominated, so as women lawyers working in this business I don’t feel that we’re at a disadvantage.

CC: On the business side of the business, absolutely correct. On the technical side, behind the cameras, it’s still evolving.

Thanks, and enjoy the festivities. You've probably got a reception or a party to go to.

CC: I'd love to, but I'm closing an eight-figure deal.

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