He Reels In the Big Deals
To understand what makes Skip Brittenham one of the most powerful entertainment attorneys in the country, picture him fly-fishing.
Standing thigh-deep in one of his favorite roaring rivers, he knows just how to gauge where the biggest trout will be and which fly will catch its attention. Most important, he knows precisely when to strike.
“He’s a feller who can go to New Zealand, Mongolia or Argentina and, in a moment’s notice, can understand the environment and have his way with those fish,” says Buck “Bucky” Buchenroth, who has been Brittenham’s personal fishing guide for the last decade.
These same qualities -- patience, cunning, quiet perseverance -- make Brittenham Hollywood’s reigning king of the big deal. When it comes to significant entertainment transactions of the last two decades, the 64-year-old has had a line in almost every pond.
“All roads lead to Skip,” said Sony Pictures Entertainment Vice Chairwoman Amy Pascal, who often seeks him out for business advice even though he is not her attorney.
It has been years since Hollywood has had a consigliere to whom insiders turn. Lew Wasserman, the former talent agent turned media mogul, played that role until his death in 2002.
Now, some people say Brittenham is as close as the industry gets to an unbiased voice of reason.
“If there’s a Lew Wasserman now in Hollywood, I think it’s Skip,” said client Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax Film Corp.
Brittenham represents more top studio executives than any Hollywood lawyer, not to mention some of the most bankable stars -- Tom Hanks, among others -- and corporate clients such as Pixar Animation Studios. But even though most people outside of Hollywood would recognize Brittenham’s famous clients, few have heard of him.
That’s by design. Like Wasserman, Brittenham does not trumpet his successes in the media. He manages to create the perception that he is that rarest of Hollywood creatures: a man not guided by his own agenda. Let other entertainment lawyers get profiled in Vanity Fair. Brittenham keeps the spotlight on his clients, not himself.
“It’s just not my style to give interviews,” Brittenham said when approached about this article.
But behind the scenes, Brittenham is ubiquitous.
“What amuses me most about Skip is he often represents everyone in the deal,” said actor Harrison Ford, a longtime client. “And, he does a really good job for everybody ... I’ve always walked away from every negotiation and thought, ‘Jesus, how did he get that?’ ”
For example, he does deals for actor clients Tim Allen and Eddie Murphy and also represents their agent, William Morris Agency Chief Executive Jim Wiatt. One minute, he’s negotiating the executive contracts for 20th Century Fox co-Chairmen Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman. The next he’s on the other side of the table from those same studio chiefs, brokering a deal for his director clients, brothers Tony and Ridley Scott.
Over the years, some have questioned whether attorneys such as Brittenham can effectively juggle the interests of competing parties. Several entertainment law firms have been sued for alleged conflicts of interest over the years, and Brittenham’s is no exception. In 1992, three such suits were filed against the Century City firm that Brittenham owns with 18 partners.
One of those suits was filed by a former partner, Gregg Homer, after the firm fired him. Homer alleged that the firm made deals that benefited the “more important” clients without disclosing the effect of such deals to its other clients. In so doing, Homer claimed, founding partners Brittenham and Ken Ziffren “were placing their own interests ahead of those of their clients.”
Although the firm countered that Homer had been fired for cause and “did not measure up,” it nevertheless paid him a cash settlement. Of the two other suits -- filed by former clients -- one was settled, the other dismissed. But the question they raised still lingers: Should any one lawyer represent both the fish and the bait?
Resoundingly, Brittenham’s clients -- who are asked to sign four-page waivers anytime a potential conflict arises -- say yes. The reason: Entanglements that would be problematic in any other industry are seen as assets in Hollywood -- as a sign you’re really connected. Although he does not represent competing parties in the same transaction, his broad reach inevitably helps to enrich both his clients and himself.
“There’s an old saw in the business: If you’re not conflicted, you’re not wired enough,” said Joe Roth, the former Walt Disney Studios chief who became a Brittenham client when he formed his independent film company Revolution Studios in 2000.
And Brittenham is nothing if not wired.
Miramax co-founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein say they will never forget the day in 1993 when they got a call from Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was then chief of Disney Studios. Katzenberg wanted his film studio to buy Miramax and he told the brothers how to close the deal: Hire Brittenham.
“At first we were suspicious,” Harvey Weinstein said. “What in the hell is the executive buying our company doing recommending a lawyer?” But after just one meeting with Brittenham, Weinstein thought, “I get it.”
Brittenham helped craft a unique compensation formula, convincing the brothers that instead of collecting hefty salaries, they should take a percentage of Miramax’s annual earnings.
“Do you want a bigger salary or a chance to bet on yourself?” Brittenham asked the brothers.
When the sale closed, Disney forked over $70 million and agreed to pay the Weinsteins a lucrative “super bonus” in coming years based on how much value Miramax created for Walt Disney Co. shareholders.
Last year, when the corporate marriage was headed for divorce, the Weinsteins tapped Brittenham again. His approach was blunt at times. When the Weinsteins asked for producer fees and profit participation on four movies a year that they wanted to make for Disney in the future, the studio countered with one. Brittenham gave a little, but not too much.
“We’re doing three. Next point,” he said, according to people who were in the room. In the end, even the Weinsteins’ archrival, Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner, was pleased with the outcome.
“He has the ability to calm me down,” said Eisner, who has sat across the table from Brittenham in several high-stakes negotiations. “He’s a solution junkie.”
Brittenham also is willing to tell clients things they may not want to hear.
New Line Cinema Corp. founder Bob Shaye, another Brittenham client, said that in negotiating his and co-chief Michael Lynne’s contracts with Time Warner Inc. over the years, their attorney had frequently challenged them to defend their demands.
“I’d say, ‘Well, I’ve got to have this,’ ” recalled Shaye. “And he’d say, ‘Nobody gets this. I don’t know what I can use as a rationale to frame your request so it makes sense.’ ”
But, being Brittenham, he usually figures out a way.
“He’s affable, but wily,” Shaye said. “He tries to help create an argument that is irrefutable.”
Like most entertainment attorneys, Brittenham doesn’t charge by the hour, instead taking 5% of his clients’ earnings. When you’re representing many of the town’s most powerful people and companies, that adds up.
He won’t confirm it, but others estimate he personally averages about $8 million a year, and brings in millions of dollars more for the firm, where more often than not he is the top earner.
In a town of super egos, he holds his own -- his critics describe him as arrogant. And indeed, even his closest friends say Brittenham can be domineering, sometimes seemingly unaware that there’s a viewpoint other than his own in the room.
“Skip dominates most conversations in a negotiation and nobody questions the veracity of what he’s saying -- it’s the world according to Skip,” said Wiatt of William Morris.
Brittenham’s partners describe him as unyieldingly competitive, whether on the tennis court or at the scavenger hunts his firm organizes at its corporate retreats.
“He wants to win at everything,” said managing partner Sam Fischer.
Ziffren, one of two lawyers with whom Brittenham founded the firm in 1978, recalls that early in their partnership, the two discovered they were wooing the same prospective client, comedian Richard Pryor. Another attorney might have stepped aside and let his partner reel in the catch. Not Brittenham.
“Skip did not back down,” Ziffren said. “He got Pryor.”
In an industry known for hubris and artifice, Brittenham can be self-deprecating, using humor to disarm adversaries and diffuse tensions.
His Christmas cards, sent out by the hundreds each year, have become legendary. Designed by Brittenham’s wife, actress Heather Thomas, they always make the balding, 5-foot-8-inch lawyer the brunt of the joke.
Last year’s card showed what happened when Thomas, following the instructions in a book called “How to Have a Happy Marriage,” let her husband pick the family’s holiday vacation destination. The card opened to reveal the entire Brittenham family, shivering and scowling, huddled around its self-centered patriarch as he happily fished through a hole in the ice.
In fact, people who know Brittenham say that, in this workaholic town, he is sure to make time for his kids. The father of three girls -- two grown daughters from a previous marriage and a 5-year-old with Thomas -- he keeps bankers’ hours, usually leaving the office by 5 p.m.
Such stability eluded Brittenham when he was growing up.
Born Harry Brittenham, the eldest son of an Air Force fighter pilot, he had a vagabond childhood, moving from one base to another. He wanted to fly planes like his father and to spend his life in the military.
But in 1963, just weeks before graduating from the Air Force Academy, he got hit in the eye with a squash racket. His 20-20 vision -- a requirement for pilot training -- was gone.
He spent four years negotiating contracts for the Air Force before enrolling in law school at UCLA.
After passing the bar, he joined Kaplan, Livingston, Goodwin, Berkowitz & Selvin as a junior lawyer. At the time, the firm had one of Los Angeles’ largest entertainment practices. What he lacked in experience, he made up for in chutzpah.
Screenwriter and director Larry Cohen remembers meeting the then-30-year-old lawyer in 1972. Cohen had stopped by the firm to get one of Brittenham’s senior colleagues to hammer out a deal with Nick Vanoff, a TV producer who had agreed to finance “Bone,” Cohen’s first directorial effort. But his own attorney was out of town.
“Is there anybody here who can negotiate a movie deal?” Cohen recalls yelling in desperation. “This kid walked up to me and said, ‘I can do it for you. I’m Skip Brittenham.’ ”
Skeptical, Cohen asked, “You’ve done this before?”
“Yes,” Brittenham lied.
Cohen and Brittenham sat down at Nibbler’s, the Beverly Hills coffee shop, and penciled out the deal -- Brittenham’s first solo film transaction. Cohen became Brittenham’s first client. He remains so nearly 33 years later.
In 1974, the lawyer signed his first actor: Henry Winkler. At the time, Winkler was a struggling actor with fifth billing in a new 1950s-themed TV show called “Happy Days.” But in just a few seasons, Winkler turned “the Fonz,” the tough guy with a black motorcycle jacket and a soft heart, into the show’s most popular character.
As the character he played became an American pop icon, Winkler was transformed into the biggest star on TV. He still had a couple of years to go on his contract. But that didn’t deter Brittenham. To gain leverage with the series’ producer, Paramount’s television division, he told Winkler to stage a one-day sickout.
“You must stay home. It will change your life,” Winkler remembers Brittenham telling him. The actor, who had never missed a day of work in his life, joked that he might break out in hives. His lawyer held firm.
It worked. Paramount agreed to give the TV star a significant piece of the show’s profit and a cut of all future spinoffs. The deal was one of the first of its kind.
Brittenham and Ziffren would soon become known as pioneers of such “backend” deals. Actors Ted Danson, Tony Danza and Tom Selleck suddenly gained ownership stakes in their shows. So did writer-producers such as Gary David Goldberg (“Family Ties”) and Glen A. Larson (“The Fall Guy”).
Along with representing individuals, Brittenham has in recent years negotiated some of the industry’s most notable film financing and corporate deals.
For example, he is in the midst of brokering the possible sale of DreamWorks SKG’s live-action division to NBC Universal. And this is not the first time he has come to the rescue of DreamWorks’ partners, Katzenberg, David Geffen and Steven Spielberg.
Last year, when they needed to repay billionaire Paul Allen the approximately $700 million he had sunk into their studio, Brittenham suggested splitting DreamWorks in two and taking its highly profitable animation operation public.
Weighing the best time to strike, he set the initial public offering for less than a month after the release of “Shark Tale,” the studio’s much-anticipated follow-up to the blockbuster “Shrek 2.” Brittenham -- donning a pair of green Shrek ears -- was on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange when the opening bell was rung in October.
The company’s new stock soared on its opening day from an initial price of $28 to $38.75, raising $812 million. Although the stock price has since slipped to $27.37, the IPO’s success sealed Brittenham’s reputation not just in Hollywood, but also on Wall Street.
Investment bankers at Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Securities Inc. who had collaborated with him on the DreamWorks deal gave him a framed poster meant to celebrate his versatility. Above a picture of Brittenham’s face, the poster said: “The quarterback who likes to hit homeruns.”
Katzenberg, who runs DreamWorks Animation, said, “Skip’s plan and follow-through were key to making it happen.”
So happy was Katzenberg with the deal that he doesn’t seem to mind that Brittenham also represents DreamWorks’ biggest competitor: Pixar.
In 1991, Brittenham forged Pixar’s initial deal with Disney to finance, market and distribute as many as three movies.
Then after the huge, unexpected success of Pixar’s first feature release, “Toy Story,” it was Brittenham who pulled Disney back to the bargaining table, tearing up the original contract.
The new deal, struck in 1997, enabled Pixar to share equally in the profits of all its future movies. The resulting windfall from such blockbusters as “Toy Story 2,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Finding Nemo” and “Monsters, Inc.,” gave Pixar Chief Executive Steve Jobs the clout last year to break off new contract talks with the formidable Disney.
Recently, there has been a thaw between Pixar and Disney, with both sides indicating that serious negotiations will resume this fall. One thing is for sure: Brittenham will have a seat at that table.
Many people in Hollywood can’t be bothered to talk about much beyond the weekend box-office results and which studio head will be fired next. Reluctant to ever truly unplug from the industry, top executives often vacation together in the same spots. Not Brittenham.
He doesn’t hesitate to put a multimillion-dollar deal on hold while he travels to a river halfway around the world. Sometimes, these fishing trips are in locations so remote that he is unreachable for days at a time. He knows the deal will still be there when he returns.
During the Weinsteins’ settlement talks with Disney, for example, one strategy meeting grew particularly tense, as the brothers’ representatives realized that the deal was threatening to fall apart.
Bertram Fields, another attorney in the room, remembers that at one point someone turned to Brittenham, demanding to know what he planned to do to salvage the situation. Brittenham simply smiled. He knew the players. He’d understood the pressures, and how close tempers were to boiling over. It was time to pause, not act.
“I’m going fishing,” he said. And he did.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Name: Harry “Skip” Brittenham
Career Highlights: First job: Kaplan, Livingston, Goodwin, Berkowitz & Selvin, 1970-1978.
First client, screenwriter-director Larry Cohen, 1972.
First actor client, Henry Winkler, 1974.
Launched boutique entertainment law firm with Kenneth Ziffren and David Gullen, 1978.
Among his clients: Actors -- Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, Eddie Murphy, Tim Allen, Ice Cube, Bruce Willis and Ted Danson. Directors -- Ridley and Tony Scott. Corporations -- Pixar Animation Studios, DreamWorks SKG. Executives -- Miramax Films co-founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein, 20th Century Fox co-Chairmen Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman, New Line Cinema co-Chairmen Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne, Revolution Studios founder Joe Roth and Interscope founder Ted Field.
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