With A-list clients, youthful law firm takes antiestablishment to the bank
As Kevin Morris shows a visitor around the loftlike, soon-to-be-vacated Santa Monica digs of his entertainment firm Barnes Morris Klein Mark Yorn Barnes & Levine, it becomes apparent that the impending move is symbolic as well as physical.
“Yes, it’s a very grown-up move,” says Morris of the switch from a slightly funky stretch of downtown Santa Monica, where the firm shares a building with a yoga spa, to Century City, where the firm has signed a 10-year lease for a full floor at 2000 Avenue of the Stars.
Not coincidentally, the building is the future home of CAA. The opportunity to be at the center of the entertainment business in a resurgent Century City was too good to pass up.
In 10 years, Barnes Morris has grown from a core of young attorneys starting out with little money, little experience and a handful of equally young clients into a 20-lawyer-and-growing talent representation powerhouse.
Almost half the firm’s partners graduated from law school in the ’90s, and Morris clearly takes pride in differentiating his firm’s youthful vigor from the more established Brahmins in the field.
This is not to say that Barnes Morris is on the outside looking in. In a town where name-dropping is practically a sport, Barnes Morris’ client list — which covers the spectrum of actors, writers, directors, authors, recording artists and corporations — could stop a conversation dead in its tracks.
Among the names are Matthew McConaughey, Scarlett Johansson, John Singleton, Laura Linney, Snoop Dogg and Danny Elfman. But the firm’s greatest strength is in comedy, where Barnes Morris reps the equivalent of the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball squad: Jim Carrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Will Ferrell, Chris Rock and Vince Vaughn, and that’s just the starting rotation.
The firm’s comedy leanings were established early on. When Morris went out on his own in 1995 as the Law Offices of Kevin Morris, his first clients were “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. He met them in 1993, when they screened their movie “Cannibal! The Musical” at the Yarrow Hotel in Park City, Utah.
As the pair’s careers took off, the relationship blossomed. Today, Barnes Morris handles the “South Park” juggernaut as well as merchandising and films for the duo. In 2000, when Morris set up “South Park’s” lucrative syndication deal at Comedy Central, it was the first off-network syndication pact.
“The firm of Barnes Morris Klein Mark Yorn Barnes & Levine has been an invaluable partner of ours in the nurturing, growth and financial success of the ‘South Park’ franchise for nearly a decade,” says Doug Herzog, president of Comedy Central. “They are smart and savvy negotiators on behalf of Trey and Matt, but together we have built one of the most valuable television properties in the history of the medium.”
Today, Morris’ comedy clients also include Eddie Izzard, whose pilot for HBO has just been ordered to series; Steve Coogan (“A Cock and Bull Story”); Mike Judge (“Office Space”); and standup comedy’s current “it” boy, Dane Cook (“Employee of the Month”). Morris also reps actress-singer Minnie Driver as well as filmmakers Chris and Paul Weitz.
With the addition of partner Deborah Klein, who left what was then known as Bloom Hergott Cook Diemer and Klein in 2000, Morris says that “our thing about comedy coalesced” — a bit of an understatement given that Carrey, Ferrell and Vaughn followed Klein into the Barnes Morris fold.
Over the years, she has helped her clients jump from smaller deals to huge paydays, seemingly overnight. She steered Carrey from his $300,000 salary in “Ace Ventura, Pet Detective” to
$7 million for “Dumb & Dumber” through “Cable Guy,” where he became the first star to command $20 million for a film. She represented Farrell on “Anchorman,” which he famously sold based on a pitch, and had a similar hand in Vaughn’s ascendancy.
“It’s very exciting to combine the individuals in our firm, the talent of our clients and the strengths of the managers and agents we work with,” Klein says. “This will all lead to the tremendous continued growth of our firm.”
Comedy no slouch
While some in the industry viewed this summer’s showbiz tremors — Sumner Redstone’s ouster of Tom Cruise, producer James Robinson’s public scolding of Lindsay Lohan, Fox pulling the plug on the Ben Stiller/Carrey comedy “Used Guys” due to soaring costs and untenable backend deals — as boding ill for talent, Morris sees them as blips. “I think it’s a great time for firms that represent talent. It’s the old baseball adage: ‘Speed doesn’t go into a slump.’ Comedy doesn’t go into a slump, either.”
Stephen Barnes, who joined the firm in 2002 with such clients as Rock and Singleton, also cautions not to read between the lines. “In my experience, people negotiate for the most they can get for their services,” he says. “And there’s usually a buyer for those at the top of the business. I don’t think that’s going to change.”
Barnes is also realistic in assessing who is most responsible for generating record sums of money for services rendered in the lawyer-manager-agent equation. “Who should take credit for an increase in talent’s payday? Usually the talent,” says Barnes. “I don’t know how anyone can increase the fees for someone who hasn’t performed the service that would bring up their worth in some way.”
WMA chief Jim Wiatt, who has worked with Barnes Morris on numerous deals for shared clients, says the firm’s lawyers “look at the entire range of opportunities and see how they can create different models for different disciplines. They are really passionate about their clients. When you work with them, it’s not just about the deal, it’s about the career.”
Partner Kevin Yorn, who joined the firm shortly after it opened, reiterates the notion that the business is changing and talent needs representation to keep up with the rapid changes in technology. “The studios are much tougher with their deals across the board,” Yorn says. “It’s harder to get 20 against 20, and it’s harder to get the $5 million deals. These different platforms are both insurance and a great opportunity.”
For example, the Wayans brothers, whom Yorn reps with Morris, direct, act and write, and are involved with merchandising, children’s television, book deals and animation. “It takes all the departments of this firm to service them,” Yorn observes.
For DeGeneres, with whom he has worked since her days as a network star, Yorn has handled her syndicated talkshow, American Express campaign and HBO specials. In addition, DeGeneres was just named Oscar host — perhaps the ultimate acid test for a comedian.
Partner Jared Levine — who joined the firm in 2003 from what was then Nelson, Felker & Levine — has a broad-based entertainment practice that encompasses writers, directors, producers and performers as well as sportscasters and action sports personalities.
And in this age of Internet distribution and mobile content, Levine leaves no stone unturned. He recently brokered a deal between skateboarder Tony Hawk’s Mobile Dissent and mobile content provider InfoSpace, which will offer ringtones, graphics and music.
“What makes it an exciting venture for Tony is that it allows him to partner with InfoSpace, not just act as a celebrity licensor,” Levine says.
For comedian Zach Galifianakis, Levine did a deal where his film “Live at the Purple Onion” is distributed by Netflix. In the past, Levine adds, the only choice for a standup comic would be to air the show on cable.
To Yorn, perhaps the paradigm multiplatform client is “CSI” creator Anthony Zuiker. Zuiker’s intense interest in gaming — from board to video — required Yorn to learn about a whole new industry.
Even for more traditional talent, like Johansson, whom he has repped for much of her career, Yorn works in many arenas. Johansson does both studio and indie films and has extensive advertising clients. “I’ve represented her since she was 16,” says Yorn, “and watched her mature and becom
e a woman involved in a detailed way in her business life. I went from working with a parent to working with her.”
Morris credits Barnes Morris’ success to strategic hiring, growth from within and clients who have blossomed along with the firm. In addition to Stone and Parker in their pre-“South Park” incarnation, Morris had as a client McConaughey, whom he had admired since seeing him in “A Time to Kill.”
With Michael Barnes, who currently handles the firm’s corporate work, Barnes Morris opened its doors on Jan. 1, 1996. Yorn joined a few months later.
“There was a hole in the marketplace, and I felt there was a place for an insurgent law firm,” Morris says of the decision to start his own practice in an area that has long been dominated by a handful of boutique firms such as Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca, Fischer, Gilbert-Lurie, Stiffelman & Cook; Bloom, Hergott Diemer Rosenthal & LaViolette; and Gang, Tyre, Ramer & Brown.
Today, Barnes Morris competes against them as well as Hansen, Jacobson, Teller, Hoberman, Newman Warren & Richman and Sloane, Offer, Weber & Dern.
The nascent Barnes Morris was also blessed with close agency/management connections. Morris’ wife Gabby Morgerman is an agent at WMA, and Rick Yorn, a key player in management company the Firm, is Kevin Yorn’s brother. “It was a minus as much as a plus in the early days because people thought we got work through connections,” Morris says. “But we always got our own clients, and not relying on connections made us tough.”
The firm has twice-weekly meetings and, uniquely for an entertainment firm, it hires lawyers right out of law school. In many ways, the firm models itself more like a talent agency than a law firm. Younger lawyers “cover” the studios and report on them at regular meetings.
Instead of an annual retreat to a golf resort, the partnership goes rock climbing in Yosemite or hiking in the Grand Canyon.
“I think there is a changing of the guard in entertainment law analogous to what happened 25 years ago with the agencies,” Morris says. “The new model of entertainment law firm will be bigger so it can handle all the work talent requires.”
The days are over, says Yorn, when an entertainment lawyer can just be the person who is marking up contracts and doing talent deals. “You need to be much more full-service than that. We do it all. We have to.”
(Steve Chagollan contributed to this report.)