Bert Fields: 30 Years at Greenberg Glusker
Trim and tanned, celebrated attorney to the stars Bert Fields looks easily a decade younger than his 83 years. And as he talks about future directions in the entertainment industry, his undeniable enthusiasm knocks off at least another 10.
“I teach at Stanford Law School,” he remarks, “and my last lecture is always on the future of the business. The kids love that stuff… All they hear is how tough it is to get a job and how bad the industry is. They get a lot of depressing information, and I say, ‘you guys are lucky because you are coming into a world that is going to be so exciting.’?”
This year’s 30th anniversary of his small firm’s merger with now-powerhouse Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger occasions only modest, brief reminiscence.
“It worked out pretty much as I planned,” notes the litigator-transactional attorney, one of the few pioneers who continue to maintain both specialties.
He cites colleagues like Chuck Shepard, Matt Galsor and Ken Basin as “marvelous people (who) make my life easier and allow me to do those things that I enjoy doing, and that I do better than others.”
But leisurely walks down memory lane detailing celeb clients (Tom Cruise, Michael Jackson) and famous victories (the Beatles’ right of publicity suit vs. the producers of “Beatlemania”; Jeffrey Katzenberg’s settlement with Disney) aren’t his natural style. He’d prefer to talk about what’s in store for audiences, artists and (not least) the attorneys who represent them.
Fields cheerfully admits he didn’t see the online revolution coming, having first heard about the Internet at a party for Barry Diller when the Fox honcho was ankling his post. “I said ‘Barry, what are you gonna do?’ And he said, ‘I’m going to study computers. I think there’s a whole world out there that hasn’t been touched, and it’s gonna be huge.’
“I said, ‘Barry, that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. You’d leave being the head of a major studio to study computers?!’ ”
Fields climbed onto the digital bandwagon soon enough, and now chats eagerly and knowledgeably about what the future may hold. He remains bullish on theatrical distribution, envisioning the advent of the $1 billion weekend when “a guy will push a button in Burbank and a picture will play on 100,000 theaters throughout the world.”
But some of that cash will surely come from home exhibition, destined to take on previously unimagined dimensions. Fields predicts a dynamic new era of holographic imagery in which a film “is actually performed in the round in your living room. So you’ll see Tom Cruise and George Clooney right by your coffee table as holograms… Now there are limits to that, because you can’t really get Tom climbing the highest building in the world in your living room. But for intimate kinds of pictures, I think we will get to that place.”
Much in his crystal ball won’t sit well with the legions in SAG-AFTRA. What he calls “synthothespians,” also known as synthespians — computer-generated actors made up of electronic 0’s and 1’s — will amount to an incredible simulation that puts “Beatlemania” to shame.
Fields asks, “Are we going to get to the place — and I think we will, fairly soon — where the studio says ‘Why do we need to pay X million dollars to a leading man, to a star? We’ll make up our own star. Call him Rock Smash. We’ll put him in all the movies we want and we don’t have to pay him anything. And when the public is tired of Rock Smash, we’ll come up with another one.’ ”
The negotiating ramifications are dizzying. “What is the Guild going to say, ‘We have to get a percentage of every picture because you’re not using our people’? And the studios say, ‘Wait a minute, that doesn’t make sense.’ ”
Things could get even crazier in the domain of performance enhancement. Fields notes, “You can take a picture of any actor, say Will Smith, and you could do 100 Will Smith movies just by having that one picture of him. You just change it with computers.” Directors, he predicts, “will be more akin to painters and sculptors, because the actor’s going to be the clay if that happens” — and Fields relishes the legal complications.
“Are we going to get to the point where people come to me and say, ‘We’d like to buy Tom Cruise’s lifetime rights. Give us a nice picture of Tom and the right to put him in whatever performances we want. What would you like, $1 billion?’ I’d say, ‘Well, a billion against X percent of the gross of all the movies you make,’ but it may come to that.”
Future innovations may turn into future shock, but Fields steadfastly resists a nostalgia groove. “There was nothing so great about the good old days.”
As he sees it, conducting business today is more ethical and more fun. “Almost everyone I deal with is someone that I can trust in a handshake deal. It’s hard for me to remember anytime recently where somebody said, ‘OK, you’ve got a deal’ and then later denied it. That just doesn’t happen to me, and in the old days I think there was a lot more of that. I think people were rougher, and just in general there was less honesty.”
He also believes “actors are typically better educated, brighter people than they were back in the old days. They’re better trained. They’re proud of their craft, they’re not just some good-looking guy who happened to be around. They really care, and they care about social things. Whether they’re on the right or the left, they tend to be people who think and speak and take a position.”
What’s the social cost when the thesp taking a position is Rock Smash? He waves off qualms, noting that some of what seems apocalyptic may never come to pass, or will only appear a long time in the future. But the octogenarian warns against anyone becoming complacent.
“A long time in the future happens pretty fast these days.”
At the top of his game | Strong impact on other players | Q&A with Bert Fields