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Over the course of the COVID-19 chaos, productions stalled, television season were halved, and once theatrically bound films went day-and-date on studio streaming services. Lawyers across the industry were there to create order amid the mess, which made the post-pandemic landscape a fitting topic for The Hollywood Reporter‘s virtual Power Lawyers celebration.
The 15th annual event featured Skydance General Counsel Stephanie Kyoko McKinnon, Loeb & Loeb’s Ivy Kagan Bierman and CAA motion picture talent agent Dana Sims participating in a keynote panel discussing a post-pandemic return-to-work that was moderated by THR Business Editor Ashley Cullins.
Individual contracts, collective bargaining agreements, the guilds’ COVID protocols, and much more were all looked over by lawyers in the past pandemic year. But, as the three women noted, all the work boiled down to being collaborative, staying nimble and ensuring the safety of Hollywood productions, both contractually and physically.
“I was crawling into bed just exhausted one night and this light bulb went off. We should not only be looking at what are these companies obligated to do under these contracts but what can they do?” says Kagan Bierman, who represents businesses across the entertainment spectrum. On the talent side, added Sims, “We were going deal by deal, strategizing what’s best for our clients and making sure their value is protected long terms.”
Kyoko McKinnon also emphasized looking at projects individually, and noted that because Skydance intentionally doesn’t have a distribution arm it’s able to be flexible amid shifts to streaming. “Our whole thing is to make sure whatever story we’re telling it’s in the right home for the story,” she said. “And we make sure that all of our partners are going to be successful and rewarded, regardless of where we put it.”
In terms of getting back to set, the group talked about safety, including the potential for mandatory vaccine policies, and the possibility of less masking and social distancing. As more clients become vaccinated and start meeting in person again, Sims says there’s an excitement among them to “be in close contact to create art” after largely missing out on that for so long.
“It’s going to be an interesting balance,” says McKinnon of continuing to conduct auditions over Zoom. “I think one of the things that people will want is some ability to have some flexibility to work from home or to Zoom. … But some people will want to make sure that they’re all together, and some people will really find that valuable. So I think it’s going to be a little bit of a case-by-case basis.”
Ending on a positive note, Kagan Bierman says she hopes now that the industry has acclimated to dealing with the stress of the pandemic it can get back to focusing on improving its culture. “This pandemic showed us we’re all in this together,” she said. “So, my eternal optimism is that we are actually going to now move into a truly diverse, inclusive, equitable, respectful, safe entertainment industry culture that we can all be really proud of.”
The event, which was sponsored by City National Bank and included comments from its EVP and General Counsel Michael Speaker, opened with a welcome from THR Editorial Director Nekesa Mumbi Moody, before THR honored its 2021 Raising the Bar honoree Lesley Freeman, the Chief Legal Officer and Corporate Secretary at MGM.
She was introduced by the studio’s COO Christopher Brearton, who called her “absolutely the finest lawyer I know.” Brearton, who as a previous Power Lawyer was no stranger to the event or the (virtual) crowd, added that her commercial sense and ability to “keep the company centered” sets her apart. “Lesley understands our business. Lesley understands how to look around corners, and understands what’s practical, what’s commercial and what’s strategic,” he said. “Lesley also is a champion of humanity. She is our moral compass.”
Delivering her remarks in front of an image of Daniel Craig as James Bond, the studio’s lead lawyer (“a dream job for any pop-culture-obsessed UCLA Law School graduate”) talked about talked about persevering during the pandemic, the power of storytelling and shepherding the studio into the future.
“With the increase in entertainment consumption, it was perhaps more critical than ever to deliver quality storytelling to audiences around the world,” said Freeman, while accepting her award. “As entertainers, we were able to provide comfort and escape during one of the most trying times in modern history.”
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