Playing matchmaker for money and know-how

THE KEY TO SUCCESS in Hollywood has always involved being in the right place at the right time. With this in mind, I’ve followed with keen interest the careers of two attorneys, Ken Ziffren and Skip Brittenham, who have reduced this to an art form. Back in the days when TV stars were riding high, setting up production companies and commanding astronomical deals, there they were, leading the charge for clients like Henry Winkler, John Ritter, Tony Danza, Tom Selleck and Ted Danson. When the writer-producer then became king of the hill, they mobilized Witt/Thomas/Harris, Miller-Boyett, Stephen J. Cannell and other heavy-hitters.

And where do we find Ken Ziffren and Skip Brittenham these days? With studios ardently in search of financing partners — Paramount being the most avid example — the stalwart attorneys are making deals on behalf of Interscope, Morgan Creek, Cinergi, Regency and other important entities that can bring money to the table as well as product. They’re also positioning themselves at the cutting edge of the new media, making a large personal investment in a fascinating device they won’t let me write about. “It combines elements of consumer electronics and the computer business” is all they’ll let me say.

The two also work with such high-tech clients as Hughes Telecommunications Satellites on DBS projects, among others, and make no effort to hide the fact that they have become dauntless dweebs.

TO GET ZIFFREN AND BRITTENHAM to talk about any of their activities takes some persistence. Both were weaned on the philosophy that lawyers should work anonymously to build their clients’ business, not boast about their own. Though naturally garrulous and upbeat, they nonetheless regard the press with grave suspicion. Not without reason: While the town’s law firms are virtually under siege with conflict-of-interest suits, the Ziffren firm, which arguably has attracted fewer than their rivals, has nonetheless received by far the most attention in the press.

“Hollywood Law Firm Sued Again,” shouted one headline in the Los Angeles Times after Steve Fargnoli, a onetime manager of Prince, filed a conflict action — one that was later dismissed in Los Angeles Superior Court. “This firm has no conflict suits at this time,” says Brittenham with a certain vehemence. “And we hope to keep it that way.”

“For the lofty position the firm has achieved in the business,” says one Hollywood insider, “their record is remarkable.”

With only 14 working attorneys, Ziffren, Brittenham & Branca is considered a modest-sized firm, but it has participated in $ 10 billion in high-profile transactions in the past 18 months and thus is a ready target for these suits. “The basic dilemma is simply this,” says Ziffren. “One of the reasons we are valuable to our clients is that we represent a wide range of major players. That also exposes us to possible conflict suits.”

Partners for some 15 years, the two attorneys tend to be somewhat arbitrary in dividing up the work load. “Skip likes stars,” Ziffren says with a wry grin, “and hence he’s the lead attorney for the likes of Harrison Ford, Eddie Murphy and Bill Murray.” Ziffren tends to focus on the corporate side –“I’m embarrassed to admit the fact that I actually have gotten to enjoy the process of due diligence,” he says.

The music side of the firm, led by John Branca, represents more than 40 platinum-selling artists and serves as a consultant and strategic adviser to several international record distributors and independent record labels. The firm has handled recent megadeals involving Michael Jackson, Prince, Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, Elton John and ZZ Top.

MOST ENTERTAINMENT LAW FIRMS have been hard hit by rising costs and quarrelsome clients, but the Ziffren firm has kept itself lean and has declined business that is didn’t feel would be a “good fit.” On the other hand, the firm turned up in the middle of negotiations involving New World’s new alliance with Fox, in the NFL’s new $ 4.4 billion network deals, in negotiating the sale of Miramax to Disney and in working with TCI’s Encore Media in launching a new premium pay channel.

Ziffren and Brittenham confess they relish their role as matchmakers for money and manpower. “The key is to use your intuition to create the right matches,” Brittenham points out. Most new ventures are defeated because the funds are handled irresponsibly or investors panic when they realize the magnitude of risk.

“We’re proud of the fact that the entities we’ve set up have not only survived, but have thrived,” says Brittenham, pointing to Regency, Cinergi, Marvel, New World and Interscope as examples. “I can’t tell you how many times Ken or I have sat with investors and said, ‘Don’t do it,’ or otherwise have worked to keep something from coming together that we knew would never stay together.”

Both men have used their practiced intuition on many other fronts as well. Five years ago they helped negotiate an end to the prolonged writers strike that had paralyzed the industry. Both devote a great deal of energy to various philanthropies that, typically, tend to be idiosyncratic rather than the orthodox Hollywood charities.

Then there are their high-tech adventures. “We don’t intend to make our living as investors,” says Brittenham, who was trained as an electrical engineer before going into law. “We both got into this thing and then we got deeper and the dollars started flowing and … who knows? We may be on the threshold of something great.”

“On the other hand, maybe something not so great,” says his partner, with a pained smile.

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