Two months ago, one of Ken Ziffren’s law partners, Matt Johnson, came into his office and said, “I am going to ask you to do something that you are going to enjoy, but you aren’t going to enjoy the visibility.”
“And I said, ‘Uh oh,’ ” Ziffren recalls.
Johnson bore the news that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti wanted Ziffren to take the job as the city’s next film czar, succeeding former Motion Picture Academy president Tom Sherak, who passed away in January. After talking it over with his wife,
In part for taking such a dramatic turn in a career that has earned him a reputation as dean of entertainment lawyers, in part for his constructive past work as labor mediator and in part for his lifelong work on behalf of his clients, Variety is honoring Ziffren, 73, with its 2014 Legal Leadership Award.
Even though he’s been prominent in the industry for decades, Ziffren has never held a position so squarely in the public eye. He took on the assignment, he says, because he’s mindful of the urgency to stem the flight of production from Hollywood.
“If I have to endure being more visible than I am, then so be it,” he says. “I’m very glad to have done this.”
Officially, Ziffren is the mayor’s chief adviser on motion picture and television production. His mission is to press for legislation to expand the state’s motion picture and TV tax credit.
Ziffren says he’s been devoting about 20 hours a week to the task since February, including time calling a couple dozen or so industry proponents, mayoral staffers, office holders and other experts to push for it.
His take: “Hopefully, we will get a bill on the governor’s desk by the end of August.”
Ziffren adds, “What gives me great hope, and gives the mayor hope, is that when people listen to the merits, they understand that it’s jobs at stake, and they are good middle class jobs.”
He’s also talked to Gov. Jerry Brown, a friend, and while Brown hasn’t thrown his support behind the legislation, Ziffren indicates he is further along than he was last fall, when Garcetti said the governor still needed to be convinced.
Expanding the credit is just the first step, Ziffren says, and it will be followed by an effort to streamline permitting and other governmental filming functions, with Los Angeles potentially the model for other cities in the state. After that, there are plans to launch a marketing campaign “to demonstrate why we are better than (our competition) in terms of services and convenience.”
Ziffren’s legal roots go deep. His parents were also attorneys. His father, Paul, became a prominent leader in Democratic politics, helping lure the Democratic Convention to the city in 1960 and the Summer Olympics in 1984. His mother specialized in criminal and divorce work.
When he was an undergraduate at Northwestern U., majoring in philosophy and political science, Ziffren planned to go to graduate school and eventually teach rather than follow his parents’ path. But the military draft and the escalating conflict in Vietnam convinced him to go to law school, where he could get a deferment.
He still remembers going to his very first class, on tort law, at UCLA Law School. It was taught by a professor notorious for his “Paper Chase”-like manner, putting students on the spot. Ziffren not only survived it, but held his own. “I lasted like 45 minutes, and I was drenched,” Ziffren recalls. “But I was just so stimulated by the whole process.”
He excelled, and by his final year he was confident enough to pursue a clerkship, with his name submitted to then-Chief Justice Earl Warren. He was accepted.
By 1965, the Warren court was already being recognized as one of the most transformational in history. Its momentous Miranda Vs. Arizona decision occurred during Ziffren’s clerkship, and he vividly recalls preparing for and then assisting in the drafting of the landmark opinion.
Warren informed his clerks of the way the justices voted, then “wrote us six to 10 pages of his thoughts, and we started to draft an opinion based on that.” As he was scouring for footnotes and citations, Ziffren found a case having to do with a company called Ziffrin Truck Lines and put it in the draft. Warren, who had a habit of reading draft opinions out loud to his clerks, called Ziffren to go over it. “He’s reading it and says, ‘Ziffrin Truck Lines?’ And he looks up at me, grins and says, ‘OK, we’ll let it go.’ So I have my name in that opinion (albeit with a different spelling).”
After his clerkship, rather than join a large firm, Ziffren decided to team with his father, whose practice dealt with tax, real estate, corporate and some entertainment law, representing clients like Natalie Wood and Charlton Heston.
One of Ziffren’s early entertainment undertakings was for clients Monty Hall and Stefan Hatos, who owned “Let’s Make a Deal.” He sorted out the program’s syndication rights just as FCC rules were being put in place that restricted distribution of TV shows into the station marketplace.
“It was fascinating,” Ziffren says. “I learned about the government and the FCC. I learned about TV distribution. I thought, ‘Wow, I can get some intellectual enjoyment out of this.’ ”
Entertainment became a specialty. By the late 1970s he decided to venture out on his own. A friend, agent Leonard Hanzer, introduced him to attorney Skip Brittenham, and together they set up their own practice in 1978. The strategy was to be a boutique firm, not a “volume shop,” Ziffren says. “We were going to be selective in the clientele we represent … looking for clients who want to be entrepreneurial.”
In the 1980s their firm grew to rep many of TV’s top writer-producers. They also took on corporate work, representing entities like DirecTV, Starz!, the TV Academy and the private equity firms that purchased MGM in 2005.
In 1988, Ziffren took on another role, that of industry mediator, when he helped negotiate an end to the bitter writers strike. Ziffren Brittenham had a stake in the outcome — the firm repped many writer-producers who were caught in the middle of the walkout — but Ziffren says he still found himself brokering between the two sides after negotiations had reached a stalemate.
“Personalities and ego were getting in the way,” he recalls. “I (told) people, ‘Let’s look at this in a rational way and not get so crazed that we can’t see the forest through the trees.’”
That matter-of-fact approach is a hallmark of Ziffren’s style. He says he tries to appreciate “the other guy’s side of the argument” to the point where one time, when he was representing an actress in a movie deal, he convinced the studio’s lawyer and a production company lawyer to switch chairs so they could each mimic a different role in the negotiations.
“We ended up making the deal when we weren’t being ourselves,” he says. “That often cuts through it all. It makes life easier.”