Jake Bloom's Exit Marks End of an Era in Entertainment Law

Amid a $50 million legal fight with ex-client Johnny Depp, one of the most influential talent attorneys steps down as the balance of power shifts from stars to creators and studios, writes The Hollywood Reporter’s Editorial Director.
Charley Gallay/Getty Images; Karwai Tang/WireImage
Jake Bloom, left, represented Johnny Depp for decades before being fired and sued for malpractice. Trial is set for September.

Jake Bloom was a movie star lawyer for the movie star era. Yes, he negotiated deals, some of the biggest Hollywood has ever seen. Bloom made Johnny Depp very rich thanks to the profit definition he crafted for the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. He helped Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone become global action stars. For George Lucas, Bloom, with his partners, carved out the Star Wars merchandise rights that turned an indie filmmaker into a billionaire.

But when word spread May 15 that Bloom, 77, is retiring along with longtime partner Alan Hergott after a five-decade career, some entertainment law insiders noted the moment as a key industry transition. Bloom was a swashbuckling negotiator with a larger-than-life persona and jet-set relationships whose appearance (part disheveled rabbi, part classic movie mogul; casual yet draped in Armani) belied his ability to fully exploit the leverage that stars enjoyed over studios in the '80s and '90s. In short, he couldn't be more old-school. Along with partner Tom Pollack, peers Ken Ziffren and Skip Brittenham, Bruce Ramer, Barry Hirsch and a few others, Bloom basically invented the modern showbiz boutique law firm in the late '70s and early '80s, charging clients 5 percent of earnings for total and full-service devotion — and, in the process, building leverage based on the tonnage of talent represented by just a handful of attorneys. It's a model that endures today.

Thanks to his strong relationships with Michael Ovitz's CAA and with ICM in its heyday, Bloom was referred a who's who of top clients, for whom he pushed the boundaries of first-dollar gross, extracting hundreds of millions of dollars from studios via strategic asks and, when needed, bullying. Bloom represented A-listers based on a handshake, not a written contract, which would cause most corporate lawyers to gnaw their fingernails off but which built trust among the creatives he championed. He became part of his clients' lives, once attending Depp's private induction ceremony into a Native American tribe (even participating in the traditional ritual). He would refer to May and June as "premiere season," the inference being that his clients were starring in the kinds of movies that debuted only in the early summer — the big movies, the movies that mattered. At the height of his influence, Bloom took a percentage off the top of earnings at his law firm, what his partners grudgingly referred to as the "Jake Tax."

"When I started out, he was the epitome of talent lawyer power," says Karl Austen, now a partner at the Jackoway Austen firm. "Through charm, wit and industry knowledge, he would famously intimidate business affairs." Talent attorneys still talk about Bloom's first Pirates deal for Depp, which shrewdly held back merchandising and theme park rights. When the film became a surprise smash, Bloom was able to cash in for the actor (and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, another client), making Disney's business affairs executives look silly in the process. "We have known and admired Jake for decades, starting when he and Tom Pollack were partners," Ziffren and Brittenham write in a joint email to THR. "Later on, Alan Hergott became a force in the industry and throughout the years we have enjoyed a respectful and friendly relationship with them."

Those Depp deals feel a bit quaint and historic in today's Hollywood, where the balance of power in film has shifted back to the vertically integrated studios and where television and streaming provide far more opportunities for creators, not stars, to reap the biggest money. (Bloom had his share of TV clients like Charlie Sheen, but they were often film people who saw the writing on the wall and transitioned.) These days at the talent boutiques, that first group of power lawyers has largely ceded management to a younger generation that is much more concerned with Netflix buyouts than first-dollar gross.

In fact, the specter of that lucrative Depp relationship makes the timing of Bloom's retirement especially unfortunate. Depp, whose personal life has spiraled in recent years, is suing Bloom and his now-former partners for $50 million over the "unauthorized taking of Mr. Depp's film residual and other economic rights for themselves." Bloom is fighting the malpractice suit, and Depp's lawyer claims Bloom's retirement is just a scheme to evade liability by dissolving and reconstituting the firm, a claim the remaining partners deny. (According to multiple sources, the firm's lease was up in Beverly Hills and Bloom and Hergott weren't interested in making a long-term commitment; Hergott is expected to pursue interests in the art world, and some believe Bloom won't actually retire once he exits.) A trial is set for September, though that date could get pushed to 2020 at a hearing May 29, and the firm's insurance policy likely will lessen the blow of any judgment or settlement.

Lawyers in Hollywood tend to take one of two approaches — a scorched-earth, take-no prisoners style that can be fruitful yet polarizing, especially in maximum-leverage situations, or a more balanced approach. "The way the business works now, it's much more effective to be strategically aggressive as a lawyer than to take the scorched-earth approach," says Michael Schenkman, who represents Christopher Nolan and who, along with Carlos Goodman (Quentin Tarantino) and Leigh Brecheen (John Oliver) will lead Bloom's reconstituted firm. "What I learned from Jake is how to be strategically aggressive."

That may be true, but Bloom's legacy likely also will include a fearsome side that is increasingly vanishing. Just ask Marty Singer, the litigator who cleaned up messes for Bloom clients, who recalls flying to New York with Bloom, a mutual client and the client's two bodyguards. At JFK, two cars arrived to pick the team up, but the client jumped in one of the cars alone, leaving Bloom to squeeze into the remaining vehicle with Singer and the hefty security guys. "I've never heard so many F-bombs from Jake," Singer recalls. "And I use a lot of F-bombs."

This story appears in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.