Practicing Entertainment Law in Hollywood

BY BRENDA VONGOVA

The Hollywood entertainment industry has always been an enigmatic world for the law student. Bored with the utilitarian halls of law firms, they aspire to conquer the exciting and mythical entertainment capital of the world. Unfortunately, most aspiring lawyers only understand Hollywood on a superficial level. In order to survive and succeed in the entertainment and media industry, they must fully understand the cultural environment of Hollywood. Entertainment Attorneys represent actors, talent, directors, producers, major studios, or independent production companies. Some specialize in a particular area, such as union disputes or tax law. The duties vary widely, and include handling legal issues for actors and producers, reviewing contracts, acquiring rights to a book, negotiating, and protecting intellectual property.

Lawyers must understand that the power structure in Hollywood is divided into two communities that have a symbiotic relationship: the creative side and the business side. The two camps are in constant conflict with each other. The creative community includes the directors, writers, and the actors. The business community includes the studios executives, the producers, and the agents. The business community is oftentimes attacked by the creative for turning Hollywood into a money-making machine and for not supporting artistic sensitivity. On the other hand, the creative community is often attacked by the business side for being emotionally unstable and for not having shrewd business acumen. These, of course, are only stereotypes.

The Harvard Law School graduate who wishes to practice entertainment law must also understand that the Hollywood film industry is made of two core groups that dominate the Hollywood feature film system: the major studios (e.g. Warner Bros.) and the independents (e.g. Hal Lieberman Company). Exactly how do the functions of the major studios differ from that of the independent production companies? The primary function of a film studio is to acquire, produce, distribute, and market motion pictures. The focus of the major studios is on distribution. In essence, studios are big banks or lending institutions that finance individual film projects and then release the finished product worldwide through their sophisticated distribution systems. In contrast, the independent film production and distribution companies are more streamlined and compact than the large studios. They essentially operate like mini-studios. The amount of autonomy you wish to have will determine your career direction. Although the major studios might be more glamorous, independent film producers have more latitude.

Practicing law in Hollywood is distinctly unique from that of any other city in the world. Since the area is brutally competitive and extremely specialized, it is extremely difficult to break into entertainment law. Following are fourteen lessons on understanding the cultural environment in Hollywood, allowing the aspiring entertainment lawyer to maximize his potential for doing business in the industry:

1. Understand that business Hollywood is in constant change.

Everything about Hollywood-its stars, its market trends, its CEOs, its use of technology, its products-is in constant change on a daily basis. According to Michael Converse, Director of Development at the Hal Lieberman Company, which is based in Sony Pictures Entertainment, “all jobs at studios are meant to be revolving-door jobs with a five-year policy.” Entertainment jobs are not meant to last. It is imperative to keep up with the trades: the Hollywood Reporter and Variety. Of particular interest and importance, the Hollywood Reporter publishes the Hollywood Reporter, Esq. (www.hollywoodreporteresq.com), which contains entertainment and media law news.

2. Study Professor Paul Weiler’s Entertainment Media and the Law.

Harvard Law School Professor Paul Weiler is a legendary figure in the entertainment law world. His book, Entertainment Media and the Law (West 3rd ed. 2006), is the Bible for every aspiring entertainment lawyer. Study your heart out of this book.

3. Relationships are paramount. Accept the fact that Hollywood is notorious for nepotism.

In Hollywood, “who you know” is more important than “what you know”. Hollywood is one of the few places in the world that denounces pedigree. This is one of the greatest challenges a student with a J.D. degree from Harvard must face. Oftentimes, jobs are given to family and friends regardless of experience.

4. Strive to become a global citizen.

Although Hollywood is the entertainment capital of the universe, the entertainment industry is a global business. Entertainment Attorneys oftentimes deal with a movie that is filmed in several globally diverse locations. It is important to experience different worlds and different cultures. Keith Feldman is the International CVP and General Manager of 20th Century Fox Films Home Entertainment. According to Feldman, in order to be a leader in the entertainment industry, it is important to strive to become a global citizen. It is very easy to become lost in the ethereal and intangible world of Hollywood. All successful entertainment companies are global companies.

5. Become well-versed with new technology and emerging media. Increase your marketability by increasing your knowledge in digital media.

Technology continues to shape the entertainment world. Today, people are more open to home theatres, and are less willing to watch a movie straight through. According to Feldman, digital media will grow extremely important in the entertainment industry in the immediate future. A great issue today involves the shift from packaged media to digital media. Understand that new technology and emerging media will reshape Hollywood in near future. Recommended reading: Wired magazine.

6. Do not take everything for face-value.

Remember, Hollywood is a make-believe world-including the people that rule it. Scoundrels abound, and lying is a common business practice. For example, directors and agents expect actors to lie about their credits, their experience, and their age. Yes, this is the harsh reality. Practicing law in Hollywood is not for the weak. According to veteran entertainment lawyer Richard Schulenberg, “If you cannot weather the downside of this business, you should get out as quickly as possible because it will kill you one way or another-spiritually, emotionally, physically.”

7. In order to survive, have an alternate source of stable income.

According to Michael Lynton, CEO and Chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, there is no safety net in the industry. Therefore, it is important to have an alternate source of stable income.

8. Be generous. Help others. Look at the big picture and think globally.

Be generous with your connections. Once you become a Hollywood media mogul, give someone their first break. It is easy to grow selfish in this industry. Stay in perspective and serve the poor in both the local and world community.

9. Look at driving in Los Angeles traffic as a wonderful opportunity to meditate.

Hollywood is an automobile museum. Due to the immense Hollywood landscape, one must own a car in order to survive….and learn to love or at least enjoy driving in LA traffic. If you love New York, then you will probably abhor Hollywood. The cultural geography of Hollywood is an immense physical sprawl of over four thousand square miles, filled with a multitude of multicultural districts. The Hollywood city is actually only one district within Los Angeles County.

10. Understand that the Hollywood agencies are the central nervous system of the entertainment industry.

The agencies represent Hollywood royalty-the A-list actors, the Academy-award winning directors and writers. As noted in the opening script, many CEOs with prestigious degrees started their entertainment career in the agency mail-room making minimum-wage.

11. Warning for aspiring female executives: Unf
ortunately, the Hollywood club is still dominated by males.

However, as noted in lesson #1, Hollywood is in constant flux. The Hollywood Reporter publishes an annual issue highlighting the 100 most powerful women in the industry. Nancy Josephson, a Harvard Law School alumnus, is one great example of a strong female figure in Hollywood. Look her up. Her accomplishments require an entirely separate article.

12. Have a sense of humor and a positive attitude.

Give your 1000% best effort to avoid the “sour grapes” attitude. Be persistent and have faith. Do people get screwed in Hollywood? Yes. Will you get screwed? Probably. However, also understand that the entertainment world works like a Russian Mafia family, and in the end, you must be good to your word. In the end, “what goes around comes around.” Look at the positive. Hollywood is filled with the most creative, innovative, and fascinating people in the world. Appreciate the good people you meet.

13. The entertainment industry is one of the few industries in the world that does not value pedigree!

In Hollywood, everyone is self-made, and no cares that you went to Harvard. Understand that pursuing graduate studies at Harvard is for one’s pleasure if you wish to work in the creative side of Hollywood. However, according to David Stainton, a Harvard Business School MBA Alumnus and ex-President of Disney Animation, resumes are always questioned in the entertainment industry. Although people in Hollywood do not care about pedigree and a Hollywood career is somewhat unstable, your Harvard credential is a something concrete and stable that you will hold for life.

14. Do not pursue the entertainment industry for the money!

Your first summer internship in the entertainment industry will be either unpaid or low-paid. If you want to make money, then put your well-deserved Harvard J.D. degree into use, and work for a law firm in New York. Waving your Harvard diploma will not help in Hollywood; be open to starting off with a 25K salary.

How do you know whether or not you have what it takes to survive it in entertainment industry? The answer is simple: PASSION. According to Michael Lynton, “The most successful people in the industry are those who cannot imagine doing anything else in the world.” When you love what you do, work will never be tedious. Do not go into the entertainment industry thinking that it will be easier than working in investment banking. Like a career in investment banking, a career in the entertainment industry is a 24/7 job. Sleep is considered a luxury. Hollywood values hard work. Go into the entertainment business not for the money, but because you have the opportunity to influence lives creatively.

On Friday, April 13th at 11:00am (Pound Hall), the former President of Warner Independent Pictures and Miramax Film, Mark Gill, will speak to Harvard Law School students on the challenges and problems with the entertainment law industry. Unfortunately, according to Gill, entertainment law is costing the show business economy dearly. However, he will discuss the solutions and possible far-reaching results that will be surprisingly beneficial to America’s entertainment industry.

Mark Gill is currently CEO of a new $200 million company, The Film Department (TFD). TFD is represented by Allen & Company, the top investment bank in the entertainment space with a client list that includes News Corp, Disney, Viacom and Google. TFD will focus on one of the only growth sectors in the movie business: star-driven feature films in the $10-35 million range. For the past three years, Gill was the founder and president of Warner Independent Pictures.

This will be presented by the HLS Office of Career Services, the Committee on Sports and Entertainment Law, and HL Central. For questions concerning Mark Gill’s visit to Harvard Law School, contact Brenda Vongova at bvongova@fas.harvard.edu.

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