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Entertainment Law 101

Jeffrey B Cohen

Entertainment Law 101
Nutthaseth Vanchaichana via iStock

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Back in law school, when the world was young, I remember wanting to be an entertainment lawyer without really knowing what that meant. In my fantasy it involved dry martinis, Cuban cigars, fancy cars, and movie premiers. Additionally, in my fantasy, I was taller and had a full head of hair.

If you have an interest in becoming an entertainment attorney, perhaps I can help answer the question: What the hell do entertainment lawyers actually do? For 14 years, I’ve been a partner at an entertainment law firm I cofounded in Beverly Hills, and I am still trying to figure that out.

Like beetles and salamanders, there are many species of entertainment lawyers.

Litigation vs. Transactional

I am a transactional entertainment attorney. In a nutshell, I negotiate deals and structure transactions. I fight people with my brain for money. The litigators, however, play a whole different ballgame. I fight for money. They fight for blood. Entertainment litigation can run the gambit from breach of contract suits, intellectual property claims, labor law, criminal defense, and the list goes on. Some attorneys are ambidextrous and can do both litigation and transactional, but that is usually more the exception than the rule.

In-House vs. Firm

There is also a distinction between “in-house” lawyers that work at a company versus being a lawyer at a firm. In-house counsel have one client—the company they work for. That company may be a studio, music label, production company, video-game developer, talent agency, talent management company, or an entertainment labor union such as SAG-AFTRA or The Writer’s Guild of America.

In-house counsel are often further bifurcated into “business affairs” attorneys and “legal affairs” attorneys. Business affairs attorneys have the glamorous gig of negotiating deals, while legal affairs attorneys are stuck doing real legal stuff (corporate filings, cease and desists, chain-of-title documentation, etc.).

Lawyers working at a firm usually represent a number of clients at any given time. Transactional entertainment practices can be a smallish division of a large firm or a stand-alone boutique firm with anywhere from three to thirty lawyers. Given the intimate nature of transactional entertainment law and the limited number of clients who warrant the use of a top legal eagle, smaller firms can and do wield a great deal of power in the industry.

Transactional Specialization

It is common for transactional entertainment attorneys to specialize in specific areas of show biz. This is natural as the culture, contracts, and legal needs of different entertainment constituencies can be quite diverse. The culture of music is distinct from the culture of Broadway is distinct from the culture of studio tent pole mega-film releases is distinct from the culture of video games.

Part of the fun of being a transactional entertainment attorney is that we serve a number of functions. We negotiate deals. Sometimes we represent David, sometimes we represent Goliath, but either way it’s often an interesting fight. We serve as consigliore, like Tom Hagen did to Michael Corleone in The Godfather. We advise the client on macro issues such as their relationships with their other representatives and their career path. On occasion, we talk them off the ledge when times get rough. We are also bodyguards. Opposing parties need to know that if they behave in a manner contrary to our client’s interests there will be pain.

The Most Important Thing We Do

Above all, the most important thing we do as entertainment lawyers is tell our clients the truth. That may sound simple, but believe me, in the entertainment industry, it is not. It’s hard to tell powerful and famous people things they don’t want to hear. But, if no one does, they can become detached from reality and make poor decisions. If you are unable to give your client your unmitigated opinion of the situation, that person is not really your client. The fiduciary duty we owe them allows for nothing less.

Quick Tips if You Have Interest in the Biz

If I haven’t scared you away from wanting to practice entertainment law, here are some quick tips:

  1. Know your stuff. Study contract law, intellectual property, tax, corporate, and any applicable entertainment guild law.
  2. Attorney before groupie. Appreciate your client’s talent but never be in awe of them. If you are a fan first, you will be unable to perform the cold calculations necessary to properly advise and help them.
  3. Location, location, location. Los Angeles, New York, and Nashville are key hubs where the deals get done.
  4. Study the culture. Read entertainment biographies and industry news periodicals (Variety, Billboard, etc.). Whatever others in your biz watch, read, or listen to, you must as well.

To that end, I highly recommend you read my book The Dealmaker’s Ten Commandments: Ten Essential Tools for Business Forged in the Trenches of Hollywood published by The American Bar Association. I took a lot of knocks to learn those commandments. Hopefully, they will give you a head start when you begin your journey in the biz. Now, give ‘em hell and break a leg!