Hollywood's Top Dealmakers of 2020: The Pandemic Players

6:00 AM 1/25/2021

by Edited by Ashley Cullins

Amid doom and gloom, many of the past year's most interesting pacts were closed via Zoom.

Dealmakers of the Year Illustration by Maria Corte
Illustration by Maria Corte

The entertainment landscape continues to evolve at a breakneck pace thanks to developments in technology and an increasing consumer appetite for content -– but this year change happened at warp speed as companies across Hollywood looked for ways to stay afloat amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. From shattering theatrical windows to deal with shuttered cinemas to playing professional sports in a bubble, in 2020, there was no such thing as business as usual. The Hollywood Reporter’s fifth annual dealmakers list spotlights the people who kept on their toes to keep the entertainment industry on its feet.

Profiles written by Kirsten Chuba, Ashley Cullins, Mia Galuppo, Natalie Jarvey, Pamela McClintock and Georg Szalai.

  • Erich Andersen

    Global General Counsel, TikTok

    The veteran Microsoft lawyer joined ByteDance-owned TikTok in January 2020, just in time for the social video app’s pandemic-fueled rise to around 100 million active U.S. users. Andersen oversees the company’s compliance and data privacy work, which became a lightning rod over the summer after then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order threatening to ban TikTok over purported national security concerns. While not directly involved in negotiating recent TikTok deals like its November licensing agreement with Sony Music Entertainment, Anderson’s team of lawyers also reviews all contracts tied to such agreements.

  • Adam Aron & Elizabeth Frank

    CEO, AMC Theatres
    EVP, Worldwide Programming & Chief Content Officer, AMC Theatres

    In late July, the seemingly impossible happened: Aron and Frank struck a deal on behalf of AMC Theatres that shortened the theatrical window dramatically and allowed Universal Pictures to make the studio’s films available on PVOD as early as 17 days after they open in cinemas. “Happily, after 90 days of very amicable discussions, we achieved what we couldn’t before,” says Aron. “It’s landmark and historic.” AMC — the country’s largest cinema circuit — and Universal had been in talks for several years, but couldn’t agree on terms until the pandemic provided a new incentive. “We had wanted a multi-year agreement, 10 years or so, where the terms couldn’t be changed,” says Frank of reaching a compromise. “In the end, it wasn’t that long. This deal gives Universal the confidence to release films in a highly uncertain market. That in turn allowed us to offer our consumers choices. That’s the most immediate impact on the business and helps the entire industry.”

    Favorite film or series of 2020
    Frank: “I’m surprised that I watched so much and remember so little. I loved Hamilton on Disney+, though I really wish I’d been able to enjoy it in a theater.”

  • Alex Berkett & Christa D'Alimonte

    EVP of Corporate Development & Strategy, ViacomCBS
    General Counsel, ViacomCBS

    Since its 2019 recombination, ViacomCBS has turned its focus to content and streaming. The company in April acquired a stake in Miramax that added more than 700 titles to its library in exchange for $150 million and a commitment to invest another $225 million in new productions over five years. Late in the year, it raised more cash for investments by selling CNET for $500 million and agreeing to divest publisher Simon & Schuster for $2.175 billion. “There was a flight to quality in the M&A market,” says Berkett. “This played to our advantage.” D’Alimonte expects “an incredible focus” on production in 2021 as “content is, indeed, king.” The new-look ViacomCBS has all the tools to create compelling content, she says. “The launch of Paramount+ in 2021 will really highlight this.”

    Favorite film or series of 2020
    Berkett: “Yellowstone. Our family moved to a horse ranch in Montana for a portion of the pandemic.”

    D’Alimonte: “A tie between 60 Minutes and The Daily Show.”

  • Bernardine Brandis

    EVP, Walt Disney Studios

    Brandis remembers attending the March premiere of Niki Caro’s Mulan at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles and then “everything shut down on the next Monday,” she says. Mulan was pulled from its March 27 release date and again from a July opening, at which point it became clear that audiences wouldn’t be returning to theaters anytime soon. That’s when Brandis, who heads the studios’ business affairs, got to work redrawing deals that would allow Mulan to have a premium debut on Disney+ in September before being available to all subscribers in December. She similarly ushered the filmed staged production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton onto Disney+. Her team’s work will prove important as theaters remain shuttered and with the state of exhibition in constant flux. With new projects, Brandis notes, discussions are now happening up front and contingencies are set should theatrical aspirations be side-lined. “Disney does not have a one-size fits all approach,” she says. “It’s fair for me to say it is not a science.”

    2021 trend to watch 
    "Pandemic or not, we are all engaged in deals that provide for compensation in a theatrical release situation and, alternatively, in the event there is no traditional theatrical release."

  • Carissa Coze

    Partner, Jenner & Block

    The L.A.-based chair of the law firm’s sports and gaming practice represented Fox Corp. in its $440 million takeover of ad-supported streamer Tubi TV, extending its digital reach. She previously represented Fox Sports in a first-of-its-kind sports wagering partnership with The Stars Group, including the acquisition of a stake by Fox, that created Fox Bet.Amid the pandemic, “the lack of in-person negotiations has had a big effect on dealmaking,” Coze says. “There often is a point or two in the deal at which it makes sense to have everyone in a room together to hash out issues. Even being in the same room with just the client has benefits that Zoom and other conferencing technology can’t replicate.”

    Most significant deal of 2020 that I wasn't involved in
    “Universal’s deals with AMC and Cinemark reflect an awareness and acceptance of a significant change in how video content is consumed. It will be interesting to see if other studios follow suit and, if so, how exhibitors will innovate and develop new offerings as they seek to attract audiences back into theaters.”

  • Joe Leccese

    Chairman Emeritus, Proskauer

    When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the U.S. in the spring, the NBA was among the first to respond, suspending games on March 11 and inspiring a similar wave across all professional and collegiate sports. Just a few months later, the league resumed play inside “the bubble” at Disney World, after weeks of planning between Leccese and his client, the NBA. “The challenges were across every conceivable possibility -- the logistics of moving people to a central location, the testing program that the NBA organized, all of the issues relating to liability and employee relations and doing the agreements with Disney,” says Leccese, who also worked with MLS and the NFL on their returns. The challenges seemingly paid off, with nearly three months in the NBA bubble resulting in zero positive cases and the NFL having just completed its 256-game regular season. “We provided people entertainment,” says Leccese. “But I think it also provided business leaders with an education that if you are rigorous in establishing protocols, and you follow those protocols, and you can inspire your workforces to follow those protocols, you can get back to work.”

    Favorite film or series of 2020
    “I love Billions. I was crushingly disappointed when they had to suspend it in the middle of the season.”

  • Peter Levinsohn

    Vice Chairman & Chief Distribution Officer, Universal Filmed Entertainment

    Not long after adding vice chair to his title in February 2020, Levinsohn was the on-the-ground architect of unprecedented deals with two of the country’s largest theater chains — AMC and Cinemark — that creates a new 17-day premium VOD window for smaller and mid-range films and a 30-day window for tentpoles (a deal with Cineworld/Regal is in the works). His bosses, Universal chairman Donna Langley and NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell, empowered Levinsohn to hammer out the details of the deals, which will forever change the landscape. One of the many advantages: the marketing campaign for a theatrical release can be paired with the PVOD push. Says Levinsohn, “When you think about it from that perspective, it is a much more efficient way of releasing films to take advantage of that marketing as one window.”

    2021 trend to watch
    ”Distribution windows will continue to compress.”

  • Linda Lichter

    Partner, Lichter Grossman Nichols Adler Feldman & Clark

    Mulan is an incredible movie that was designed to be, and is, magical on the big screen,” says Lichter of client Niki Caro’s film, which was rerouted to Disney+ because of the pandemic. “After the initial shock of not being able to show her three years of tireless work in theaters, Niki and her team had to figure out what was fair.” Lichter is also navigating pandemic challenges in her role as chair of the Telluride Film Festival and is celebrating the awards buzz of client Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland and the surprise success of cult binge hit Tiger King for director Rebecca Chaiklin.

    On pandemic dealmaking
    “For independent films, heavy-duty COVID protocols add 5 to 25 percent to a budget along with insurance concerns.”

  • Kevin Masuda

    Partner, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher

    Masuda represented Indian movie major Eros International in its stock-for-stock merger with STX Entertainment, creating Eros STX Global Corp., “the first publicly traded, independent content and distribution company with global reach and positions in the U.S., India and China.” The veteran, who also serves on the board of advisers for the UCLA School of Law’s Ziffren Center and is co-chair of his firm’s media, entertainment and tech group, predicts more M&A this year. “I expect to see new deals with respect to distribution channels and for the acquisition of content.”

    On pandemic dealmaking
    “Market disruption creates opportunities, and deals move more quickly than normal, whether due to cash constraints or perceived short windows of opportunity.”

  • Jim Meza

    General Counsel, WarnerMedia

    After defending AT&T during the Department of Justice’s lawsuit to block the acquisition of what would become WarnerMedia, Meza joined the media and entertainment group full time. In the two years since, he’s stayed busy overseeing the legal efforts for the development and launch of streaming service HBO Max in the U.S. and dealing with the complex issues that arose as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the company to press pause on many of its productions and move forward with a plan to debut its full 2021 film slate on HBO Max in the U.S.

  • Marissa Román Griffith & Chris Spicer

    Partners, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld

    With more than $1 billion in deals between them in 2020, the pandemic didn’t slow down Román Griffith and Spicer. “Across the board, all of our investor clients and producer clients are keeping us busy in their transactions involving streamers,” says Spicer, who represented Endeavor Content in connection with financings for Apple and Hulu series as well as multiple bank clients (Comerica, East West and MUFG Union Bank, to name a few) in loan facilities. Meanwhile, Román Griffith set up Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine with a new credit facility, counseled JPMorgan in its dealings with Amblin Partners and represented Portfolio Funding Company in managing the nearly 200-title film library it acquired from The Weinstein Co.

    Favorite 2020 film or series
    Román Griffith: Schitt’s Creek

    Spicer: The Platform

  • Jeff Rosen

    General Manager/Publisher for Bob Dylan

    In December, Rosen, longtime general manager of Bob Dylan’s business and music publishing enterprises, orchestrated the sale of the famed musician’s entire publishing catalog to Universal Music Publishing Group. The deal, encompassing more than 600 songs, landed at between $375 million and $400 million, sources say, on a catalog that annually generates between $11 million and $14 million. It’s considered the biggest-ever deal for a single songwriter, and allows Dylan to maintain ownership of his master recordings, which could be worth another $200 million. In a year when musicians have been unable to tour, catalog sales have boomed with the likes of Stevie Nicks, Neil Young and Imagine Dragons also making nine-figure deals.

  • Faiza Saeed & Paul Zumbro

    Partners, Cravath Swaine & Moore

    During a quiet year for media M&A, Saeed and Zumbro focused their attention on the unwinding of a company. The pair led the team that worked with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman’s mobile video startup Quibi on its shutdown after just six months. “They were very thoughtful,” says Zumbro of Katzenberg and Whitman’s decision to call it quits due to lagging subscriber interest while they still had about $350 million (of $1.75 billion raised) in the bank to return to investors. Their work included helping Quibi find a new home for its library of around 75 shortform original shows on Roku, which Saeed — a veteran dealmaker who in the past represented Disney in its acquisition of the 21st Century Fox assets and the Viacom board in the company’s merger with CBS — calls “a silver lining in the wind down.”

    Most significant deal of 2020 that I wasn't involved in
    Saeed: “TikTok-Oracle-Walmart, for the sheer mystery of it all.”

  • Matthew Thompson

    Partner, Sidley Austin

    Tequila and football kept Thompson busy in 2020. While that sounds like a great two-hander for a Saturday night, it actually meant shepherding millions of dollars’ worth of acquisition and distribution deals at the behest of clients Dwayne Johnson and Dany Garcia. In March, the duo launched Teremana Tequila. While the pandemic has largely shuttered bars, hotels and other watering holes, it has inspired an uptick in alcohol consumption — and a distribution deal with legacy German spirits brand Jägermeister has allowed the fledgling company to stay well stocked. Thompson also oversaw Johnson and Garcia’s headline-grabbing August acquisition with Red Bird Capital of the XFL out of bankruptcy. “People think that was the hard part, and while it was hard, the real hard work is now,” explains Thompson, who’s helping the league prepare for a relaunch. The pre-game day to-do list includes everything from reworking the players’ manual to constructing coaches’ contracts to negotiating deals with the likes of Disney and Fox for games. And while the year was prolific — 2020 also included securing a credit facility for Parasite distributor Neon from MUFG Union Bank — Thompson is looking forward to a return to in-person dealmaking. “Soft interactions matter,” he says. “It’s about being able to see people and just chat about stuff, and then the relationships that grow out of that.”

    Favorite 2020 film or series
    “Many, but I recently binged The Queen’s Gambit and loved it.”

  • David Young

    Executive Director, Writers Guild of America West

    In 2019, the Writers Guild set out to end the practice of packaging and curb conflicts of interest in Hollywood, which resulted in writers firing their agents and courtroom battles. In the past year, led by Young, the WGA has nearly finished that fight, reaching deals with UTA, ICM and CAA that limit agency ownership of production entities and end packaging by summer 2022. (Negotiations are ongoing with WME.) Says Young, “This is such a big thing, to completely revamp an agreement that was last negotiated 45 years ago, that it’s almost impossible to grasp what it will end up meaning.” The executive director, who's held his post since 2006, is also cheering another "unprecedented" win for writers. The 2020 minimum basic agreement gives guild members paid parental leave for the first time. Unpaid leave became a benefit in 2017, but starting in May 2021 writers who qualify for the WGA health plan will be eligible for paid benefits that are funded by a 0.5 percent employer contribution on earnings. Says Young, "It really makes it possible for more folks, particularly women, to have a career in this industry and have a family at the same time."

    2021 trend to watch
    “The implications of having four or five huge studio entities moving to a streaming-first model.”