Q&A: Bernardine Brandis

Disney's Bernardine Brandis raises the bar for studio lawyers

When Bernardine Brandis joined the Walt Disney Studios' business affairs department in 1985, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg had just arrived on the sleepy Burbank campus and her first company retreat included just 50 people.

The UCLA Law grad, now executive vp business and legal affairs and the studio's top film deal lawyer, has been instrumental in recent big-ticket partnerships with superproducers Jerry Bruckheimer and Scott Rudin, directors Tim Burton and Robert Zemeckis, as well as new 3-D and nature divisions.

Matthew Belloni chatted with Brandis in advance of her receiving THR's Raising the Bar Studio Lawyer Award at Friday's Power Lawyers Power Breakfast.

THR: What's the biggest change in the role of the studio lawyer from when you started?

Bernardine Brandis: What's the same is how important it is to keep strong relationships with talent representation. I know I'm going to see these people (next) Thursday, so I've got to be aboveboard. But now the deals have another zero on them. That's certainly changed.

THR: How has your involvement in studio strategy evolved?

Brandis: Because so much of the cost of films now comes from talent, my role is to try to be creative about making deals work. It was much more cookie-cutter in the old days. The business still operates on precedent, but all over town we're trying to protect the downside while making sure everyone walks away with a piece when it does well.

THR: What's the most effective thing a talent lawyer can say to you for his or her client?
Brandis: Take the high road: "Plan A won't work, but Plan B will work. I can work with you on that." It's best not to ask for something that you know will take 13 phone calls to close. If I were a talent attorney, I'd want to give my client reasonable expectations of what I can deliver.

THR: And what's the worst thing to say?

Brandis: Setting up a situation that's polarized. Asking for something that is miles away from where the studio wants to close the deal. Something that encourages the studio to say "Pass."

THR: Isn't that just effectively using leverage?

Brandis: (Laughs.) Well, it doesn't seem to work very well here.