Showbiz rates its legal regals

In a town that prizes toughness, they’re the toughest.

In a town ruled by celebrities, they’re the stars of their field, closing complex deals for superstar clients.

In a business ever more dependent on other people’s money, they broker the international financing schemes that are reshaping Hollywood.

They’re the top talent lawyers — the Clarence Darrows of Hollywood — and they preside over an industry facing new pressure on all sides: tight-fisted conglomerates, soaring talent demands and the dour prognostications of Wall Street.

Who’s the most powerful of these lawyers?

Using our own Socratic method — a wide-ranging survey of agents, managers, studio heads and business affairs execs — Variety arrived at a list of 10 transactional lawyers (i.e., dealmakers) repping talent who rise over California’s entertainment bar.

Dozens of respondents were asked to rate each lawyer in four basic categories — toughness, fairness, civility and command of the business — on a scale of one to five, five being the highest.

Taken together, these numbers translate into an overall power rating.

Skip Brittenham is the “rock star of the group,” in the words of one producer. He is judged to have the best command of the business and to be the fairest.

Bert Fields is considered the toughest and Tom Hansen the most civil. Among Variety‘s top 10, Barry Hirsch is deemed the least civil, though there were a number of contenders for that title, including Hansen’s partner, Steve Warren, who reps Leo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon.

Attorneys have always been a force in Hollywood. Lawyers have run studios in the past — Peter Guber, Tom Pollack, Allen Levine and Arthur Krim — and some still do: Stacey Snider and Tom Rothman have law degrees.

But the clout of lawyers in private practice is becoming more important as film financing grows more complex.

Many studio features are now co-financed: That means production deals carry new wrinkles like intercreditor agreements and multitiered profit participation deals.

“Agents aren’t trained to focus on that, and don’t have the patience to do that,” says one agent. “Agents want to get on and off the call and onto the next deal. Lawyers are paid to get the deal done right.”

It’s the lawyers, not the agents or managers, who run the dollars through the deals, writing the contracts and structuring financial arrangements.

Let the record reflect, Variety‘s list is not all-inclusive. Several well-respected transactional lawyers did not make the list. We omitted lawyers on the studio side, music attorneys and (with the exception of Fields, who also practices transactional law) litigators.

The top vote-getters, in order:

Harry “Skip” Brittenham

Partner at L.A.’s Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca, Fischer, Gilbert-Lurie & Stiffelman. The lawyer for top Hollywood power players like Joe Roth, Jim Wiatt and the brothers Weinstein. On the talent side, he reps Eddie Murphy, Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford.

A genius with numbers, Brittenham has engineered several major international finance schemes, including the deal for Revolution.

And, as a bonus, he is known as an effective environmentalist — and a talented jitterbugger.

Overall power rating: 4.69

Bruce M. Ramer

Partner at Beverly Hills’ Gang, Tyre, Ramer & Brown. The eminence grise of the entertainment biz, Ramer has long repped Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood. A behind-the-scenes leader in the Jewish community and a staunch Republican, he sits on the board of the Urban League, KCET-TV and USC Law School.

“Bruce is always engaging intellectually,” says one producer.

Overall power rating: 4.61

Tom Hansen

A partner at Hansen, Jacobson, Teller, Hoberman, Newman & Warren. Clients include Mel Gibson, Meg Ryan, John Woo and John Wells. Hansen, who’s married to Judy Hofflund of Hofflund-Polone management firm, is an affable outdoorsman whose interests include fly-fishing, cars and motorcycles.

Overall power rating: 4.49

Ken Ziffren

Brittenham’s partner. A pioneer in the business of TV syndication, Ziffren is point man for some of the biggest talent and corporate deals in entertainment. He also is an elder statesmen on labor disputes. His clients include Liberty Media Group, DreamWorks and DirecTV. Quiet, serious and academic, Ziffren was clerk to Chief Justice Warren in the mid-1960s.

One producer called him “a tough, buttoned-up corporate guy.”

Overall power rating: 4.46

Jacob “Jake” Bloom

Partner at Bloom Hergott Diemer & Cook in BevHills. Inside dealmaker for Hollywood’s big-bang pics, he reps producers Jerry Bruckheimer, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard and actors Nicolas Cage and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

A schmoozer par excellence, he sports a salty lexicon full of four-letter words and a look — loud, open shirts and heavy beard — straight out of Central Casting.

“If there’s a hiccup,” says one producer, “he finds a way to get it done. He wants to get movies made.”

Overall power rating: 4.35

Bert Fields

Partner at Greenberg, Glusker, Fields, Claman, Machtinger & Kinsella. The litigator who secured Jeffrey Katzenberg’s $265 million payout from Disney, Fields has a stellar transactional client list, including Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, James Cameron, Mike Nichols and Joel Silver. He’s also an amateur chef and published novelist who loves to sing; he is recording a CD featuring his favorite standards.

Thanks in part to his prowess as a litigator, Fields may be the most fearsome of showbiz attorneys. “He’s a real fighter,” says a rival attorney.

Overall power rating: 4.18

Melanie Cook

Bloom’s partner. Cook is the best-known woman transactional lawyer in town. She reps Tim Burton, Martin Scorsese and Scott Rudin. Cook juggles so many tasks, she says she never leaves BevHills. That hasn’t proved to be a problem. Cook is so powerful, the studio execs come to her.

Cook is described variously as “graceful and deceptively tough” to “unresponsive if not interested.”

Overall power rating: 4.08

Craig Jacobson

Hansen’s partner and the calm, even-tempered brother of film exec Tom Jacobson. His clients include Katy Couric and Sam Raimi as well as FilmFour, Senator and Alliance Atlantis.

Overall power rating: 3.9

Barry Hirsch

Partner at Los Angeles’ Armstrong Hirsch Jackoway Tyerman & Wertheimer. Hirsch is little known outside the entertainment industry but is a feared dealmaker. His adversaries criticize his hardball tactics and his demands for eleventh-hour deal changes on films facing imminent start dates.

But his clients, who include Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Redford and Julia Roberts, are fiercely loyal.

One producer calls him a “good people person.” He’s also a psychotherapist, marriage counselor and ordained minister, who officiated at Jennifer Lopez’s wedding.

Overall power rating: 3.56

Patti Felker

Partner at Nelson, Felker, Levine & Dern.

The youngest of the group, the outspoken and hard-driving Felker reps a new generation of talent, including Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Gore Verbinski and Spike Jonze.

Overall power rating: 3.45

Even the lowest-ranked of these 10 attorneys came out with good scores. Measured against the hundreds of entertainment attorneys now working in Hollywood, many of them would rate fives in all categories.

The animosity often directed against showbiz lawyers springs in part from the fact that they’re at the center of a heightened tug of war for money, power and importance.

These days stars have become mini-corporations, leveraging their talents in new arenas — Jennifer Lopez has a fashion line, Mel Gibson owns foreign territories on his pics, and Kevin Costner owns a casino. Transactional lawyers form part of a team that surrounds these stars, fighting to expand their
rights and revenue opportunities.

But they’re also fighting to preserve their client lists. “It used to be that the only people poaching each other were agents,” says one top agent. “Now it’s agents, managers, lawyers, publicists, hairdressers.”

Managers are increasingly becoming hyphenates and even would-be conglomerates, and agents and managers are rivals with lawyers for power.

But while agents and managers may have other ambitions, lawyers have long been content to represent their clients and call it a day.

Claude Brodesser, Cathy Dunkley, Dana Harris, Dave McNary, Charles Lyons and Janet Shprintz contributed to this report.

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