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Power Attorney Skip Brittenham Weighs in on Disney, Screening Room and Netflix at Variety Power of Law Breakfast

Lawyer says Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have similar messages for voters

Skip Brittenham Variety Power of Law
Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

In a wide-ranging discussion with Variety co-editor-in-chief Claudia Eller on Thursday, top Hollywood attorney Skip Brittenham held forth on issues ranging from the globalization of the world economy to the impact of disruptive technologies on the entertainment ecosystem.

Brittenham, founder of powerhouse firm Ziffren Brittenham, has participated in entertainment industry deals that have collectively amounted to an estimated $20 billion in value over the past decade. He began by taking a wide view of the economic scene.

Large organizations “can’t operate at a large scale without being global,” he said, citing the operational efficiencies that companies as disparate as Walmart and Apple can gain by establishing supply chains that originate in China and are governed by sophisticated software. Yet, the technology that makes this possible has resulted in large corporations gaining near-monopolies on entire industries, resulting in less competition and fewer jobs.

The current political climate is a direct response to these changes, he said. “When Trump says he wants to make America great again, he’s really saying, ‘We should go back to the ’50s and ’60s, when all you guys had industrial jobs.’ Bernie is also saying: ‘The system is screwed. I’m gonna get all you guys jobs.’”

Brittenham extolled the business world of Silicon Valley compared to that of Hollywood. “It’s not about the dollars, it’s about the culture,” he said. “Over 90% of Silicon Valley startups fail. There they don’t hold failure against you. In our business, there’s no premium on innovation.”

When asked by Eller which Hollywood company has the best vision for the future, without hesitation Brittenham said Disney. “Bob (Iger) has spent $15 billion on acquisitions (including Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm). Bankers said he overpaid, but he built a mammoth merchandising and promotion machine.”

“They make more money in merchandise than they do in movies,” he added, “and they do very well in the movies. Disney has adapted to this landscape better than anyone.”

Eller asked about succession at Disney. “The best person to succeed Bob Iger is Bob Iger,” Brittenham replied.

The attorney also weighed in on the state of a movie business where franchises are “supporting the system” at the expense of mid-budget movies. “The middle part of the market is going down,” he said, largely because more people are turning to television, which has seen a dramatic upsurge in the number of shows – over 400 by most counts – that are available on a multiplicity of platforms.

The key to success in film, said Brittenham, is establishing a new franchise, “but it’s also a mega-challenge.” He noted that outside of animation, very few individuals – James Cameron, with “Terminator” and “Avatar,” and George Lucas, with “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” – have created more than one franchise

Brittenham also addressed the goals of his controversial client the Screening Room, a venture that aims to provide day-and-date releases of movies in the home for $50 – offering them for a 48-hour window. Its backers are Sean Parker and Prem Akkaraju; supporters include Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, J.J. Abrams, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. Other filmmakers are vehemently opposed to it.

Brittenham revealed that he insisted Screening Room apportion part of its revenue to movie theaters. “I told them I’ll only get involved if they included the whole ecosystem.”

To thwart piracy, he said, Screening Room boxes will include big-brother-like features, such as geo-location software that will shut them down if they’re moved to even another room in the house. “We also have a way of knowing who’s in the room,” he added, a bit ominously, “and how many people are watching. We don’t want them to turn their bedrooms into movie theaters for their friends.”

Brittenham ended his talk with some words about Netflix, which, he said, has become so established that it’s impossible to dislodge from the business. “It’s disrupting our whole industry,” he said. “Of the $5 billion they spent last year on content, about half went to studios. For them, it’s like crack cocaine.”