When Sony Pictures Entertainment needed to seal the financing behind its upcoming re-make of “All the King’s Men,” it hired a law firm known more for its business acumen than its show business contacts.
Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP, which did not even have an entertainment practice a decade ago, completed the transaction, one of many it has handled for the studio.
The decision reflected a little-noticed but significant change in entertainment law, long the domain of an elite group of boutique firms: As Hollywood consolidates it opens up opportunities for other, larger firms.
“General litigators handle matters all the time that involve what I’d call specialty industries whether it’s apparel or banking or insurance or entertainment,” said Leonard Venger, executive vice president of litigation for Sony Pictures, a big supporter of opening up studio legal work. “While they may need to learn the terminology and nuances, for the most part they are very qualified to handle most entertainment matters.”
The talent side of the business actors, directors and producers still generally relies on traditional boutiques to draft contracts and movie deals. They include Ziffren Brittenham Branca Fischer Gilbert-Lurie Stiffelman & Cook LLP and Bloom Hergott Diemer Rosenthal & LaViolette LLP.
And a handful of larger firms such as O’Melveny & Myers, Manatt Phelps & Phillips and Loeb & Loeb long have handled most of the entertainment litigation.
But more recently, a new group of firms, including Sheppard Mullin, Florida-based Greenberg Traurig and Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges LLP have captured entertainment work.
“There are more players. As a result, some of the more traditional firms have lost their exclusivity,” said Louis Meisinger, former general counsel of Walt Disney Co. who now serves as senior advisor to Sheppard Mullin.
With each entertainment merger or acquisition, new layers of executives bring their own relationships with lawyers.
Moreover, big industry deals, such as the sale of Vivendi Universal’s studio and television businesses to General Electric Co.’s NBC subsidiary, and News Corp. Ltd.’s purchase of DirecTV Group, have created the need for new law firms with a corporate background.
Lawsuits and deals have become vastly more complicated, now involving extended merchandising agreements, video games, Internet promotions and advertising. As a result, production houses are looking beyond boutique firms whose expertise is limited to traditional entertainment law.
The new entrants have relied on big name entertainment attorneys to build the practices and attract other experienced entertainment attorneys.
In Los Angeles-based Sheppard Mullin’s case it was Meisinger, who jumped to the firm two years ago from Walt Disney. A former name partner at the now-defunct Hill Wynne Troop & Meisinger, he has been joined by about a dozen other lawyers who were re-united from their days at that firm.
The partners also brought old clients, including Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures and Playboy Enterprises Inc. And with Meisinger’s connection to Disney, the firm has represented the studio several times.
Greenberg Traurig boosted its local entertainment practice with the addition of Jay Cooper and Mel Brooks’ attorney, Alan Schwartz, who handled work for the movie and the play productions of “The Producers.”
Los Angeles-based Quinn Emanuel has built its practice around its representation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the hiring of George Hedges, who worked at Kaplan Livingston Goodwin Berkowitz & Selvin, an entertainment boutique that represented Warner Bros. but disbanded in the 1980s.
Hedges said the firm has assembled teams of entertainment and general trial attorneys who have more expertise arguing in front of a jury. Several studios, including Warner Bros., CBS, HBO and Fox, have hired the firm for high-risk litigation.
Still, he cautioned that it’s not for everyone. “It’s like a village or a small town,” he said. “It’s amazing how you run into the same people over the course of a career.”