Hollywood Reporter Esquire

Want to run a studio? Try going to law school

It's an easy stereotype: Entertainment lawyers stand in the shadows, trained only to dot i's and clean up messes made by the real moguls. But those days are long gone. A cursory glance at the top management of nearly all the major film and television studios suggests that First-year Torts might be a better career springboard for running an entertainment company than the William Morris mailroom.

Fox Filmed Entertainment co-chairman and CEO Tom Rothman practiced as a lawyer in New York before becoming executive vp of Columbia Pictures, and starting his current seven-year reign at Fox. Warner Bros. CEO Barry Meyer is a lawyer, as is DreamWorks CEO Stacey Snider, ABC Television Studio president Mark Pedowitz and Disney Channel president Rich Ross. Harry Sloan represented talent for seven years before buying, growing and selling a series of entertainment companies. He now runs MGM. Bob Shaye has headed New Line Cinema for 25 years, 17 of them with co-chair Michael Lynne, so it's easy to forget both are lawyers, having met in 1961 as students at Columbia Law School.

And the list grows exponentially if one considers the hundreds of agents, managers and producers with legal backgrounds.

In fact, lawyers have a long history of power in the industry, dating back to Frank Wells, who in 1969 leaped from partner at the transaction boutique now known as Gang Tyre Ramer & Brown to become vp West Coast, then president, of Warner Bros. before beginning a hugely successful 10-year run as president and COO of the Walt Disney Co. (Wells died in a helicopter crash in 1994.)

One of Wells' clients at Gang Tyre was Clint Eastwood, who during a talk at the recent UCLA Law School entertainment symposium cited Wells' tenacity and professional integrity as a big reason he began what has become a 30-year-plus association with Warners.

"We were close friends," Eastwood told the auditorium of entertainment attorneys. "But you know how lawyers are — when he needed product (for the studio), we weren't that close."

As the corporate-owned studios have become more dependent on complex deal structures and worldwide rights protections, it's easy to see why the advocacy and negotiation experience attorneys develop in a specialized area such as entertainment would translate well to the boardroom. Plus, the entertainment business often affords lawyers the ability to expand their traditional role as legal adviser, often functioning more like financial analysts, investment bankers or — gasp — agents, arranging creative financing for films or developing business opportunities for clients.

Corporate CEOs, mindful of risk-averse shareholders, also might sleep better knowing there's a lawyer in charge. Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone said as much when he turned over management of his company to its general counsel, Philippe Dauman, after CEO Tom Freston was fired.

And just last week, CBS Corp. chairman Les Moonves made onetime studio attorney Bruce Tobey COO of the company's new film division.

Of course, with lawyers running so much of the industry, it's tempting for some to reflect on the early, freewheeling days of the business.

"I'm not sure I don't long for the day when the lawyers were only there to protect the studio head who had a fifth-grade education," Eastwood told the UCLA crowd, only half laughing.