October 02, 2013 10:16am PT by Eriq Gardner
Two Former NBCUniversal Lawyers to Represent Talent in Profit Fights
Expect nothing less going forward than big showdowns between studios and talent over backend profit participation.
In a sign of the Hollywood times, the law firm of Kasowitz Benson Torres & Friedman has announced that it is bringing on John Berlinski, formerly the head of West Coast television litigation at NBCUniversal, and Mansi Shah, formerly a senior litigation counsel at NBCU.
Together, the two are essentially switching sides. At the entertainment conglomerate, the two guarded against trouble. Now, they will be representing television and film entertainers, talent agencies and others with backend profit participation interests. That might spell some commotion for studios.
"Studios have historically been represented by large law firms and talent by boutique firms," says Berlinski, who will chair the firm's new Los Angeles-based entertainment practice group. "This is a way to even the playing field. Talent now get to leverage our industry expertise and the resources of a firm like Kasowitz."
The law firm is already national with more than 375 attorneys in 10 cities.
What makes this arrangement unique is that Berlinski and Shah believe there's enough legal matters to support a practice group that plans to largely specialize in profit participation claims.
Berlinski says from his experience, he knows that financial fairness in contracts represents a studio's "most important disputes," and adds that for years, talent representatives have been attempting to get him to leave NBCU and collaborate with auditors.
He's now decided to grab the opportunity.
Knowing where the bodies are buried in Hollywood doesn't necessarily portend splashy courtroom dramas. Then again, not every problem gets solved in a negotiating room, and as part of their work at an outside firm, Berlinski and Shah will be working on prelitigation consulting, cooperating with auditors to help identify potential claims.
"While our studio backgrounds should enable us to resolve most disputes without initiating litigation or impairing key industry relationships, we look forward to partnering with Kasowitz's deep bench of nationally recognized trial lawyers should litigation be necessary," says Berlinski.
As for what kinds of profit participation disputes to expect going forward, Berlinski predicts big ones over digital rights. Asked to identify a particular sensitivity, Berlinski mentions "allocation claims" as being a key arena.
These days, the major studios are making package deals with Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other digital services. One of the subjects of attention by insiders is how studios divide the spoils of these deals. Often, money gets allocated to profit participants regardless of performance, engendering charges of studio favoritism. The former NBCU attorney notes some of the controversy around "vertical integration" and says there will continue to be fussing over contractual ambiguities as content becomes more widely distributed on digital platforms.