Hollywood Attorneys Look Back to Charge Ahead at UCLA Entertainment Symposium

The Ziffren Center for Media, Entertainment, Technology and Sports Law celebrated the 40th year of the school's annual conference for Hollywood executives and attorneys.
UCLA School of Law

In her welcoming remarks Friday, Dean of the UCLA School of Law Jennifer Mnookin said the school’s annual entertainment symposium isn’t designed to share war stories, but rather to take a meaningful look at the deals, legal decisions and trends that are shaping the industry.

A consistent theme during many of the panels and presentations was the need to look at how the entertainment business has changed when thinking about evolution in the digital age.

It's a long-standing tradition for Tom Wolzien to open the event with a state of the industry presentation. Symposium co-chair Matthew C. Thompson introduced him as a Vietnam veteran, former showrunner and current consultant to media heavyweights.

Wolzien says in the battle for eyeballs in a world of seemingly endless content, just producing more original programs may not be the answer, but producing more originals that are hits is. “If you don’t get more viewers, you’re going to get screwed,” he says.

In a move that drew a hearty laugh from the crowd, Wolzien brought out a reel of two-inch videotape and joked that he could tell how old the audience was by asking how many people had ever seen it before.

The industry has come a long way since using "almost a mile of tape per hour," Wolzien says, and now it's headed toward — believe it or not — 8K video, which is double the resolution of the seemingly brand new 4K.

Wolzien also warns that while new technology has its advantages, it's wise to be cautious.

“Sometimes technology changes can fly right by us” and we wake up in the morning and realize what we thought was cute is actually a nightmare, he says while talking about the emergence of drones.

Day two of the event began with a panel on emerging streaming services, featuring leaders from Fullscreen, ABC Digital and Funny or Die.

Moderator Ken Basin likened the digital arena to the Wild West, and asked the panelists what it's like to negotiate deals with influencers who aren't used to the business structures and norms expected in traditional media, noting, "YouTube asked virtually nothing of these people, no exclusivity, no strings."

ABC's Ben Gigli says influencers in the digital world often get their start by appearing as guests in other people's videos and they're used to having the flexibility to do what they want and not worrying about exclusivity.

"The idea of not owning what they make is very foreign to them," he says.

And not working across the table from someone with decades of financials is foreign for traditional media companies looking to work with digital players, says Fullscreen's Rozanna Tesler Fried. "Our strategy is constantly emerging and we are very reactive to the space," she says.

Funny or Die's Peter Morris noted that content "decays at a much faster rate” because of bingewatching. Thankfully, there's no shortage of talent because everyone from YouTubers to A-listers wants a place in new media "to do something that’s fun and not deal with the BS and red tape," he says.

Later Saturday morning, UCLA law professor Doug Lichtman threw out his prepared presentation on copyright trends to talk about "something much more important.”

Lichtman is worried that the process for obtaining and enforcing patents is a nightmare that could eventually end with courts not protecting legitimate patents because they're inundated with suits over garbage ones.

He walked the crowd through colorful examples of patents that should have been rejected, including — this is real — a patent for a crust-less peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

The government officials who review the patents, he says, are in over their heads. If they're willing to let a PB&J patent through, what are they doing with complicated scientific applications that they don't understand, Lichtman asks.

He worries about the kind of patent that "to a rocket scientist is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich” and could dilute the protection given to meaningful inventions.

While a room full of entertainment attorneys may seem like an odd audience for a presentation about patent law reform, Lichtman says the industry needs to be aware of what's going on if it wants to continue to enjoy real technological advances.

Says Lichtman, "We can’t keep thinking about the technology world as the enemy of the content world.”

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