When British producer Celador decided to sue Disney over profits from its “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” the company knew exactly which lawyer to call.
Stanton “Larry” Stein has carved out a hefty career as chief thorn in the side of studios and networks when talent believes it has been shortchanged.
In this vertically integrated age, that frequently means advancing complaints of self-dealing between studios and their sister networks.
Stein, 60, repped thesp David Duchovny when the “X-Files” star accused 20th Century Fox of selling the series at discount rates to its stations and sister cabler FX.
The longtime attorney, who heads Santa Monica-based Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan’s entertainment and media department, also was behind Alan Alda’s similar complaints about 20th’s distribution of “MASH,” as well as producer John Langley’s issue with the price News Corp. fetched when it sold “Cops” to its own outlets.
More recently, Celador, which originated the “Millionaire” concept, complained that Disney hiked production costs on the gameshow and failed to negotiate better license terms with its own ABC network and Buena Vista TV syndie distrib.
“Clearly, I’m not their favorite,” Stein says of the entertainment congloms. “But I believe I’ve earned their respect. They know I’ll push them to the edge, but not over the edge. My goal is to accomplish my clients’ goals, not to embarrass the competition.”
“(Stein) can be more diplomatic and more aggressive, depending on the client,” says one network exec. “A lot of these lawyers, like Stein and Marty Singer, are guns for hire. They try to be responsive to how their client wants to do it.”
Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, Stein was a big fan of “Perry Mason” — and from there decided he wanted to be a civil liberties lawyer. Stein later helped found Public Counsel, the public-interest law firm of the L.A. County and Beverly Hills Bar Assns.
“My entire overview of the world comes from my interest in representing the individual against the big guy,” Stein says. “That led me into representing talent that was not being treated fairly.”
The attorney, who lives in both Malibu and Santa Monica with his wife of nearly 40 years (they have two children), attended USC on a debate scholarship, serving as captain of the school’s debate team. Stein received his law degree from the school as well.
He and partner Bob Kahan launched their firm in the mid-1970s, merging with Alschuler Grossman & Pines in 1999.
Stein now reps scribes, helmers, thesps, agencies, management companies and even musicians. He was behind Incubus’ attempts to get out of its deal with Sony and is backing “Wife Swap” producer RDF Media in its suit against Fox and Rocket Science over rival “Trading Spouses.” He’s even behind the Olsen twins as they move to take full control of their DualStar empire.
Stein first made a name for himself by originating, with colleague Harry Sloan, the concept of the actor walkout. The attorney played hardball when negotiating deals for such stars as Gary Coleman and Erik Estrada, as well as “The Dukes of Hazzard’s” John Schneider and Tom Wopat.
Stein scored a major victory when Schneider and Wopat left the “Hazzard” set and were replaced by lesser talent. When ratings plummeted, producer Lorimar was forced to rework their deals. Even now, actor renegotiations remain a big part of Stein’s practice.
(In the meantime, Stein was also grabbing headlines in the mid-1980s for representing Frank Zappa when the musician testified in Congress about music content.)
While pushing to reform the rights of talent, Stein helped make profit participation a part of those deals. That avenue eventually led him to the forefront of the industry’s vertical-integration suits.
“What I soon realized was, even if we got profit participation, we weren’t collecting the money that was owed to us,” he says.
It was while he was auditing the profit participation of “Home Improvement” executive producers Matt Williams, Carmen Finestra and David McFadzean (and their Wind Dancer Prods. shingle) that Disney — which produced “Improvement” — bought ABC, which aired the show.
“We were about to negotiate and I thought, there’s got to be something wrong with Disney TV negotiating a license fee with ABC, when they’re both owned by the Walt Disney Co.,” Stein says.
Early on, Stein says he felt like Chicken Little, but the idea of profit participants scrutinizing the actions of vertically integrated companies slowly caught on. Still, because most entertainment lawyers work with the studios, few attorneys besides Stein have tried such suits.
“It’s hard to do our practice. It’s easier to get clients when you represent studios, which pay better and offer a constant stream of work,” Stein says.
The Wind Dancer case eventually was settled out of court, but became the landmark precedent for future suits — including the recent one by Celador.
“What surprised me was the studios and networks have done such a horrendous job protecting themselves, as if their arrogance prevented them from doing what logic would dictate,” Stein says.
That has slowly changed: The nets and studios have altered deal language, making it tougher for profit participants to sue.
Not many attorneys have joined Stein in pursuing such cases because few understand the complexities of the entertainment biz, the net exec says.
“He has a certain level of sophistication,” he says. “When you get claim letters from some attorneys, particularly ones out of state, their lack of knowledge is remarkable.”