Hollywood's Top 20 Dealmakers of 2017

6:15 AM 11/3/2017

by THR Staff

Key negotiators behind the year's most game-changing deals — from Shonda Rhimes' Netflix move to Disney's streaming service — talk tactics, future trends and unwinding after the contracts are signed.

Illustrations by Mario Wagner

While the entertainment industry hasn't seen a 2017 megadeal on the scale of AT&T's $85.4 billion purchase of Time Warner, that acquisition has remained on the minds of Hollywood and Wall Street (with no U.S. regulatory approval as of press time) all year. In the same vein, 21st Century Fox is still waiting for U.K. regulators to decide on its bid for full control of pay TV giant Sky. A key deal focus in 2017 has been on top talent, with Netflix luring Shonda Rhimes from ABC Studios and acquiring the comic book firm Millarworld. "We've seen a slowdown in big-ticket M&A as assets are scarce and valuations high," says Richard Parsons, senior vp corporate business, legal affairs and international production at Sony Pictures Television, who this year led the company's investment in Stolen Picture, the production banner set up by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. "Investments in talent, which take a longer-term view, make a lot of sense in this climate." THR's second annual list of the negotiators behind the year's biggest and most complex deals reveals an industry in transition, from Los Angeles to New York to Silicon Valley and beyond.

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

  • Lisbeth Barron

    Founder, chairman & CEO, Barron International Group

    Courtesy of Subject

    Barron was Judith Sheindlin's only adviser on the estimated $100 million sale of her Judge Judy television library to CBS in August, though she doesn't take exclusive credit for the deal. "Judy is certainly one of the greatest negotiators I've ever worked with in my career," says the New York-based Barron, noting that the iconic judge has multiple projects in the works. Barron, who led the entertainment industry investment banking group at Bear Stearns for more than a decade, also advised Broadway producer Scott Sanders on the sale of his company to shopping center giant Westfield Corp.

    What's the most important attribute for a good negotiator? "Trust from both sides of the table, without a doubt. If you have that to start with, you're way ahead of the game."

  • Aryeh B. Bourkoff

    Founder & CEO, LionTree

    Courtesy of Michael Priest Photography

    Bourkoff's New York-based investment and merchant banking firm, which this year celebrated its fifth anniversary and added a Paris office, has advised on more than 75 transactions valued at more than $350 billion. To past clients Liberty Global, Viacom, Discovery, Starz, Charter Communications and Verizon, it added the likes of Snap (as a co-manager of its $3.5 billion IPO) and Lionsgate (advising it and Viacom on the sale of their stakes in Epix) in 2017.

    How do you celebrate closing a big deal? "Thanking our clients for allowing us to partake and then blowing off some steam with a good game of pingpong."

  • Joseph Calabrese, Chris Brearton and Rob Haymer

    Partners, Latham & Watkins

    Courtesy Photos

    The price tag may not stop traffic, but Tang Media's August acquisition of Open Road Films was one of the more significant deals of the year. Open Road, repped by the Latham trio, sold to China-backed Donald Tang for $29 million. Tang was looking for a library, still a necessary asset for a fledgling studio, and he landed a plum one with such titles as Oscar best picture winner Spotlight and animated family film The Nut Job. The L.A.-based Latham team also spearheaded a much higher-priced deal in 2017: the $1 billion acquisition of Epix (the joint venture of Lionsgate, Viacom and Paramount) on behalf of client MGM (MGM's chief legal officer Lesley Freeman also played a key role in the Epix sale).

    How do you celebrate closing a big deal? "Figure out what I haven't been paying enough attention to," says Haymer, "and turn my attention to it [and also toss the piles of papers I should have thrown out since I superstitiously wait until the deal closes]."

  • Bruce Campbell

    Chief development, distribution and legal officer, Discovery Communications

    Courtesy of Robert Severi

    Discovery's $14.6 billion deal to acquire Scripps Networks Interactive and combine two cable operations known mostly for nonscripted and lifestyle content has been in Campbell's sights for some time. "It came together relatively quickly this summer, though we've long been interested in a potential combination with Scripps," he says. The New York-based dealmaker also oversaw pacts for SBS Nordic and Eurosport and a minority stake in Lionsgate. But it's the Scripps deal that's transformative for Discovery since it offers the company further scale with distributors and advertisers amid competition from digital outlets.

  • Lindsay Conner

    Partner, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips

    Conner is near to closing on behalf of a billion-dollar investment fund in its acquisition of a significant Hollywood film library — and continues to be a cross-Pacific conduit. He recently represented Perfect World Pictures in a $250 million loan facility, tied to its $500 million, 50-film pact with Universal Pictures. "After the initial wave of everyone being excited about the Hollywood-China connection, a couple of deals didn't happen and people started saying, 'China's done,' " he says. "China's not over."

    Are there any major M&A trends that you expect for 2018 and/or that you saw in 2017?
    "We’ll continue to see larger media and technology companies build portfolios by acquiring smaller, more nimble and innovative companies."

  • Tim Connolly

    Senior vp, head of distribution and partnerships, Hulu

    Todd Williamson/Getty Images

    Connolly once managed digital distribution and new product development for Disney, where it wasn't uncommon for a dozen people to work on a deal and for the negotiations to stretch for nearly a year. But in the nine months leading up to the May launch of Hulu's live TV service, he headed up a small team that struck licensing deals with CBS, NBC, Fox, A+E, Disney Scripps and others. Connolly recounts spending three grueling days in December closing an agreement to bring live CBS programming to the skinny bundle. "None of us slept, and we finished it on Christmas Eve," he says, adding, "You get a lot of satisfaction out of doing these deals." L.A.-based Connolly leads a 20-person team that also handled negotiations to make HBO and Showtime available as add-ons for Hulu subscribers and ran point on Hulu’s partnership with Spotify to offer a discounted streaming TV and music bundle to college students. He calls the deal one of his most “innovative” because of how it established a new music and television bundle.  

    What's the most important attribute for a good negotiator? "You need to bring humility to the table. Check your ego at the door."

    How do you celebrate closing a big deal? "I celebrated the CBS deal by sleeping. The honest answer is that I'm not that much of a celebrator. I just want to go home and spend time with my wife and kids."

  • Christa D'Alimonte

    General counsel, Viacom

    Courtesy of Asa Mathat for Vox Media

    MGM upped its minority stake in Epix to full ownership with its $1 billion purchase of the premium cable network. Given that Epix was a joint venture of Lionsgate, Viacom and Paramount, the deal was a shareholder transaction and primarily negotiated by the New York-based D'Alimonte. She notes that when it comes to dealmaking, thinking broadly is the key these days: "One of the most interesting things we've seen is innovative structures — creative partnerships that leverage the assets of two [or more] parties without resulting in a traditional M&A transaction."

  • Adam Emmerich

    Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz

    Courtesy Photo

    Emmerich was a decade out of law school at the University of Chicago when he and his team at Wachtell Lipton got a call from CAA's Young Turks in 1995. Since then, the New York-based firm has advised the agency on major transactions, including selling a controlling stake to TPG Capital in 2014 and, in April, partnering with Shanghai-based CMC Capital Partners to form the joint venture CAA China. Emmerich credits CAA managing partner Michael Rubel, general counsels Jim Burtson and Jeffrey Freedman and executive Colin Brady with making the latter happen: "The CAA negotiating team's flexibility and creativity resulted in a deal that has positioned CAA China for tremendous success."

  • Barry Faber

    Executive vp, general counsel, Sinclair Broadcast Group

    Courtesy Photo

    Faber led the charge for Sinclair in its proposed $3.9 billion purchase of Tribune Media to create a TV behemoth that would include more than 220 stations covering roughly 72 percent of U.S. households. The deal still needs approval from the FCC, and those that have lined up against the merger include 21st Century Fox, which was considering its own 11th-hour bid for Tribune. Fox is worried that should Sinclair combine with Tribune, it would be large enough to launch a politically conservative competitor to the Fox News Channel.

  • Joseph Frumkin

    Partner, Sullivan & Cromwell

    Courtesy of Dick Duane

    Telecom giant AT&T turned to law firm Sullivan & Cromwell to advise on its $85.4 billion deal for Time Warner, which the Department of Justice continues to review. Frumkin, Eric Krautheimer and Melissa Sawyer led the legal team. "There's no one path to becoming a good negotiator," Frumkin tells THR. "I believe in listening carefully to your client and to the other side to understand what's most important to each of them to try to develop an overall transaction that works for both." He also jokes about his thoughts about an unusual aspect of the deal: "The Time Warner team hid one key bit of information in due diligence — the ending to Game of Thrones. Many wanted to know, but they wouldn't tell."

  • Michael Gendler

    Partner, Gendler & Kelly

    Gendler advised showrunner Shonda Rhimes through her major move in August from ABC to Netflix, following her 15-year run with the Disney-owned network and studio. He says dealing with new players like the streaming giant, and the proliferation of buyers in the market, gives him the freedom to creatively negotiate and structure deals now: "To see someone like her have the opportunity to do things a little bit differently is wonderful."

    What's changed the most in dealmaking in the digital age?
    "Not only has the paradigm shifted, it keeps shifting. Whatever the deals looked like yesterday they won’t look like two weeks from now. The business is in constant transition."

  • Joshua Grode

    Partner, Irell & Manella

    It's no wonder Grode is in the running to become CEO of client Legendary Entertainment — he's been a key adviser in the company's restructuring, including converting $425 million of its debt to equity and establishing a virtual reality presence. (It financed Alejandro Inarritu’s VR installation, which was the first of its kind to debut at Cannes and recently earned him an Oscar.) Grode is also helping distributor A24 alter its business to pursue original production following Moonlight's best picture win.

    How do you celebrate closing a big deal? "We actually have a bunch of stupid rituals that go back 20 years. The one that has never changed is we go to this pen store in Westwood, and I buy ridiculously expensive pens for everybody. We go together and everyone chooses their pen, and no one can get the same one. Every time you use it, it brings you back to that deal. Everyone here has a fantastic collection of pens."

  • Joel Karansky

    Senior vp, associate general counsel and corporate secretary, Endeavor

    Courtesy Photo

    As head of corporate legal practice for the holding company that now comprises WME-IMG and Endeavor Content, Karansky took the lead in bringing on an additional $1.1 billion in outside investment in August, boosting the company's value to $6.3 billion. A few weeks later, he drove the acquisition of a majority stake in film finance and sales company Bloom, bringing it into the Endeavor Content fold as a stand-alone entity. The New York-based lawyer, who has closed more than 15 acquisitions since he joined the company in 2014, says that preparation and empathy are the two key attributes for a strong dealmaker. "A good negotiator invests time up front in knowing his or her own objectives, how the deal fits into the larger framework of the business and any potential challenges in order to have clear negotiating objectives," he says.

  • Imran Khan

    Chief strategy officer, Snap Inc.

    Dave Kotinsky/Getty Image

    The Bangladesh-born Khan worked as an investment banker for more than a decade before leaving Wall Street to spearhead strategy for Snapchat's parent company, Snap Inc., in 2015 as it began to eye an initial public offering. In March, he helped lead Snap to a $33 billion valuation in its debut on the New York Stock Exchange and was hands-on in securing a $500 million investment from NBCUniversal. Snap's stock price has slid from its opening day close of $24.48 per share, but that hasn’t stopped Khan from helping the company ink several strategic deals for the app’s Discover media platform, including a pact that will see Time Warner create original Snapchat programming based on its IP. Khan also stays busy overseeing operations, global expansion and the build-out of Snap's advertising business, which tripled from the first half of 2016 to the first half of 2017. 

  • Greg Maffei

    CEO, Liberty Media

    Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images

    Nearly a year passed between the first reports that Maffei's Liberty Media was interested in acquiring Pandora and the eventual deal: Liberty-owned SiriusXM announced in June plans to invest $480 million for a 16 percent stake in the struggling internet radio company. During that in-between period, the Denver-based Maffei (who now leads the Pandora board) sent Pandora's stock boomeranging with his comments about its value. "They leaked that we had had a prior interest when they thought it would help boost their stock price," he says. "We didn't mean to get into a war of public commentary." The former Microsoft CFO, who joined Liberty in 2005, is no stranger to highly scrutinized deals. In the last year, alone, the media firm purchased Formula One Group for $4.4 billion and announced plans to acquire QVC owner HSN. Says Maffei: "It was a busy year."

    What's changed the most in dealmaking in the digital age? "The large digital players are so much bigger that you'll see more pressure to scale. They have the ability to spend more. Look at the budget that Netflix has for content. You'll see companies try to have a way to respond to that by building scale of their own."

    How do you celebrate closing a big deal? "When we closed Formula One, I had this plan that the people who worked on the deal were going to go to a driving school. Of course, we got too busy. That's typical."

     

     

  • Kevin Mayer

    Senior executive vp and chief strategy officer, Walt Disney Co.

    Courtesy Photo

    After CEO Bob Iger decided it was time for Disney to invest in a streaming future, it was chief strategy officer Mayer who closed the deal to acquire majority ownership in Major League Baseball's streaming technology provider, BAMTech. (Disney paid $2.58 billion in two deals for a 75 percent stake in the business.) BAMTech — which Mayer recently predicted will become "a massive business" — will now power the two subscription services that Disney plans to create: a sports service that will launch in 2018 and a kids' service (complete with Marvel and Star Wars programming) that will be available by the end of 2019. The Harvard Business School alumnus worked at Disney in the 1990s before leaving for stints as the CEO of Clear Channel Interactive and Playboy.com. Since rejoining the company in 2005, he has overseen Disney's acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm and Maker Studios. 

     

  • Jon Miller

    Partner, Advancit Capital

    Courtesy Photo

    Miller, a former CEO of AOL and chief digital officer of News Corp., joined Shari Redstone's investment firm Advancit in 2013. One key deal he worked on this year was Netflix's first acquisition, namely the comics firm Millarworld. "I approached Mark and [wife] Lucy Millar with the idea that offering their intellectual property as a package would be more valuable than the one-off deals they had been doing," Miller tells THR.

    How do you celebrate closing a big deal? "When we were done, the Millars said they were going to McDonald's. I thought they must be buying the place, which seemed like a good use of their new money!"

  • Matthew Thompson

    Partner, Sidley Austin

    Courtesy Photo

    Thompson advised client Alliance Holdings, a Pennsylvania-based private equity firm, in its purchase of a basket of revenue rights that include major Hollywood television and film titles. He also repped the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in a significant investment in Macro Entertainment (Fences, Mudbound), the multicultural media company founded by former WME partner Charles King. "Activity is through the roof," he says, adding that he expects that to continue through the first quarter of next year. "What’s driving it? Continued consolidation and availability of capital."

    What's changed the most in dealmaking in the digital age?
    "Thousands of drafts and 24/7 availability."
     

  • Kerry Trainor

    CEO, SoundCloud

    Courtesy Photo

    Trainor met the founders of SoundCloud in early 2017 after he stepped down as CEO of Vimeo. He and The Raine Group soon began to hatch a plan for the startup, which was seeking strategic options following stalled acquisition talks with Spotify, per multiple reports at the time. In August, news broke that Raine Group and Temasek would invest a reported $170 million in SoundCloud in a deal that also installed the New York-based Trainor as CEO. The former AOL executive says it was his vision for SoundCloud that helped him get buy-in from the founders and the board. "SoundCloud is such a unique platform because it is first and foremost a creator-driven ecosystem," he says, pointing to the DNA it shares with Vimeo, which he ran for almost five years. "We're slowly starting to realize the potential of that." 

    What's the most important attribute for a good negotiator? "Try to have a sense of how you and your partner may value things differently. That's usually the best area where you can start to develop some sort of deal and partnership." 

    How do you celebrate closing a big deal? "By making it work. The deal is part of it, but then you settle in and do the work."

  • Gary Suter

    Senior vp M&A and international development, AMC Entertainment

    Courtesy Photo

    In January, he helped the exhibition giant close the company's $929 million acquisition of Stockholm-based Nordic Cinema Group Holding. "Dealmaking ebbs and flows," Suter tells THR. "You have to let the financial metrics, not your emotions, guide your decision making."

    How do you celebrate closing a big deal? "Sleep!"

    Profiles by Ashley Cullins, Natalie Jarvey, Tatiana Siegel, Rebecca Sun, Georg Szalai and Etan Vlessing.

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