The Greenberg Glusker law firm has become much more than the home of Bert FieldsBert Fields remembers the call like it was yesterday.
But it was March 1984, not too long after Fields joined the venerable Greenberg Glusker law firm, and Warren Beatty was on the line. The actor-producer-director was upset that ABC and Paramount wanted to cut four minutes of his Oscar-winning "Reds" for TV.
Unacceptable, Fields told his client.
"Beatty had put his sweat into that film," Fields recalls. "It took him a whole year to cut the picture down to what it was. He really felt that there wasn't one possible second left to cut without the edits seriously damaging the scenes immeasurably. (It) may not have seemed like much, but we felt it was worth fighting."
So Fields did fight, and the firm won one of the first cases acknowledging a director's right to final cut authority in a contract.
Bert Fields and wife Barbara Guggenheim
"There were a lot of people unhappy with me at the time," Fields says. But he won the case anyway.
Such are the perils of high-level Hollywood lawyering; sometimes your friends become your enemies.
But as the firm (full name: Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger) celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, it has become one of the few constants in an industry of constantly shifting allegiances.
That's in part because of Fields' unique approach to entertainment law. Whereas most Hollywood law firms specialize in either dealmaking or litigation, Greenberg Glusker does both. Lawyers who represent studios usually try to avoid the potential conflicts of also representing talent and executives, but Fields and his firm count as clients such
A-listers as Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman and studios including Paramount, the Weinstein Co. and DreamWorks Animation.
"I've known Bert for the better part of 35 years," says DWA topper Jeffrey Katzenberg, who Fields represented in his legendary lawsuit against former employer Disney. "His eloquence, elegance and intellect are a powerful combination that leads a lot of us to have confidence that we are putting our future in the best possible hands."
But the firm isn't just a one-trick pony. Fields gets most of the headlines but Greenberg Glusker has for years been a full-service entertainment firm, and its new crop of lawyers are positioning the firm for a bright future when the 80-year-old legend retires.
That teamwork approach was instilled early. In 1959, Yale Law graduate Philip Glusker teamed with UCLA law school grad Arthur Greenberg to start a firm in a converted Safeway store in downtown Los Angeles. They soon became respected for handling real estate matters, estate planning and general business litigation, but the firm spent nearly a quarter century with a relatively low profile.
Then in 1982, Fields, who had earned his legal chops doing court marshals in the Air Force, was scouting around for a new firm after his then-partner, Jacob Shearer, announced his retirement. Fields' respect for Greenberg and a subsequent negotiation between Fields' partner Robert Marshall and Greenberg Glusker partner William Halama sealed the deal.
"We had tried to build an entertainment practice throughout the 1970s and it never took off the way we wanted it to," says managing partner Norman Levine. "When I got here in '74, there were two dozen lawyers. By the 1980s, we were around 40 lawyers and the entertainment side of our practice became highly public. People started reading about us."
The firm had found itself in the middle of some of the most high-profile disputes the industry had ever seen, representing the likes of Aaron Spelling, Jerry Bruckheimer and Sharon Stone in multimillion-dollar cases. David Geffen became a client after Fields opposed him in litigation.
Partner Robert Chapman recalls representing ex-Beatle George Harrison in several lawsuits, including a defamation case against the Globe tabloid for printing that Harrison built a shrine to Adolph Hitler.
But that wasn't Chapman's favorite Harrison matter.
"George called me one day and said he had this estate in Hawaii," Chapman says. "He had been using a law firm to deal with an easement issue but they weren't having any luck preventing his neighbors from walking across his property. We went to the Hawaii Supreme Court and got it reversed, and so from there on out, neighbors had to go around."
The firm has been at the forefront of many of the biggest entertainment law trends of the past 25 years.
For instance, First Amendment lawyers were once reluctant to bring lawsuits on behalf of celebrities because winning a defamation case is difficult for a public figure.
But realizing that leverage often comes from a willingness to expend resources, Greenberg Glusker began filing multimillion-dollar suits like those challenging published words about the sexuality and Scientology practices of Tom Cruise.
At the same time, suing for the unlawful commercial use of a celebrity's name or image was extremely rare until states like California began expanding protection thanks in part to a handful of influential Greenberg Glusker cases.
In one case, Paramount had licensed the rights to create "Cheers"-themed bars featuring robots imitating characters from the hit series. When actors George Wendt and John Ratzenberger claimed that the agreement misappropriated their likenesses, Chapman represented Paramount and took the case all the way up to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal.
The firm lost when the appeals court ruled that Paramount violated the actors' rights of publicity, but the ruling has since helped Greenberg Glusker represent other stars in important right-of-publicity cases, including Cruise and Nicole Kidman in a battle against luxury goods company Sephora, and recently, the singer of '90s group Dee-Lite in a case against Sega for allegedly basing an onscreen video game character on her.
These cases, along with the firm's aggressive representation of Toho and its "Godzilla" trademark, got the attention of Wired magazine. "Think Godzilla's Scary? Meet His Lawyers," profiled partners Charles Shephard and Aaron Moss.
"We have realized that 'soft IP' is our bread and butter," says Moss, referring to issues that relate to copyright and trademark licensing.
The firm also has played a leading role in recent profit participation cases. Many eyes are on partner Bonnie Eskenazi's current representation of the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien in a $150 million lawsuit against New Line Cinema for failure to pay proper gross receipts on "Lord of the Rings."
"Our firm is structured in a way -- with transactional and litigation lawyers intermingling -- that lets us have an advantage in cases like this," Eskenazi says. "It started with Bert Fields. Now we make sure that litigators participate in transactional deals, and vice versa. So when we litigate on behalf of the Tolkien estate, we can have someone who can help us with some of the difficult (contractual) definitional issues involved."
Cases like these have formed the core of firm's activity, but the high-profile disputes involving major Hollywood personalities have earned the most notoriety.
Few Hollywood fracases have garnered as much attention as Katzenberg's war against Disney. In 1999, after Katzenberg left the Mouse House, Fields represented the mogul in a breach of contract trial noteworthy for its nastiness, particularly when Disney CEO Michael Eisner admitted saying "I hate the little midget" about Katzenberg.
Fields ended up victorious, winning Katzenberg a reported $275 million.
The firm has battled Disney on multiple occasions, including the ongoing billion-dollar war over the "Winnie the Pooh" franchise and on behalf of MGM to get back theme-park rights in Europe.
In fact, Disney is the only major studio that Greenberg Glusker has not represented.
Candace Carlo, who chairs the firm's entertainment practice and handles transactional matters, says she has a "great relationship with Disney," but occasionally the firm's history will rear its head in the deal room.
"If it comes up, we'll make a joke about it and that's that," she says.
The firm also dodged a bullet when it became embroiled in the Anthony Pellicano scandal. Fields was named as a "subject" of interest when the FBI was investigating the private investigator's illegal wiretapping, and producer Bo Zenga filed a lawsuit against the firm, alleging that Fields directed Pellicano to tape telephone conversations.
But charges never materialized and Fields avoided testimony during the Pellicano trial.
"Maybe someone thinks I should have gone the way of Terry Christensen, who I feel sorry for," says Fields, referring to the lawyer who was sentenced to three years in a federal prison for conspiring with Pellicano. "Obviously, to go through a period of five years and see my name linked in a criminal proceeding wasn't pleasant, but people here at the firm and friends have been steadfast in support. Jeffrey Katzenberg called and told me not to read newspapers."
Fields adds that the incident didn't have any impact on his law practice.
He still gets to the office before 7 each morning and is proud of the fact that he led the firm in billable hours last year.
Yet with broad strengths in corporate dealmaking, litigation and even video game law, Greenberg Glusker no longer rests on Fields' reputation to win clients.
"As wonderful as (Fields) is, the whole concept of what will happen to our firm after he's gone -- that's being take care of," Eskenazi says. "The transition is being made successfully."
Perhaps with an eye toward attracting a new generation of industry clients, the firm recently teamed with Film Independent magazine on a blog called "Legal Ease" to offer guidance to young filmmakers.
And the firm remains one of the few groups of Hollywood lawyers ready to argue any side of a case or deal.
"We've had the unique experience of dealing with Greenberg Glusker as both partners and on the opposite side, such as when we negotiated the United Artists deal with Tom Cruise," says Scott Packman, executive vp and general counsel of MGM. "It's safe to say you always prefer to have your friends with you rather than against you, and that's especially true with Greenberg Glusker."
Aaron Moss on intellectual property rights:
"We're going to see more litigation involving copyright terminations -- heirs will seek to recapture rights that their parents transferred decades ago, while studios will fight to maintain ownership of their valuable entertainment properties."
Candace Carlo on Hollywood dealmaking:
"Talent lawyers are becoming more fully involved in their clients' lives. And the clients are becoming more sophisticated as businesspeople. We have to move quickly to keep up."
Robert Chapman on entertainment lawsuits:
"What we are seeing now is more and more litigation over profits. It has always been a big part of the industry, but in cases like the one over 'Lord of the Rings,' the money at stake now is huge."
Bert Fields on the economy's impact on dealmaking:
"The industry always has its ups and downs. There are times when it becomes tougher to make the kind of deal you want, where you get more resistance. And there are times when studios are more relaxed. But this is cyclical, just as the economy is cyclical."
Bonnie Eskenazi on Hollywood lawyering:
"The practice of entertainment law has been hugely impacted by technology. When I started practicing in '86, most people didn't have computers, and now all the work that goes into reading about new technologies and keeping up is very burdensome and a large part of what we do as lawyers."
Stephen Smith on video games:
"Because of the ever-increasing realism in video games, we will see more litigation in the space where First Amendment-protected artistic expression runs smack into the right of publicity and intellectual property rights."
Nancy Bertrando on labor law:
"One area of often-overlooked and significant employment liability exposure occurs when personal assistants and domestic employees aren't paid in accordance with state and federal wage and hour laws. We work closely with clients and their business managers to ensure not only that our clients' confidential and private information is protected from disclosure, but that they will not be vulnerable to such wage and hour lawsuits."