Ken Ziffren grades himself a B-minus when it comes to using new technology (“I type very well,” he says), but after more than 50 years as one of Los Angeles’ top attorneys, he remains fully up-to-date on the legal implications of the ongoing digital revolution.
“The experiences that I’ve had get experienced in new bottles, if you will,” says Ziffren. “I look at it as a challenge, but the challenge is the opportunity.”
Recently, Ziffren — who will be the keynote speaker at Variety’s Power of Law breakfast on April 20 — helped spearhead an effort to bring exhibitors and the major studios together on a deal to make films available for early home viewing via premium VOD. Negotiations were derailed by pending mergers (e.g., Disney’s acquisition of Fox), but he’s hopeful they’ll be revived soon.
“The whole VOD movement has changed not just television but also home viewing … so we have to focus on how we develop our programming to work with that audience, because that audience will be the future,” says Ziffren. “That’s the kind of stuff that our firm and I are trying to figure out and process.”
Zeffren has been at the center of a lot of public activity for several decades, from representing Democratic politicians in the ’70s (including Gov. Jerry Brown and Sens. John Tunney and Alan Cranston) to his recent efforts as Los Angeles’ “film czar,” lobbying the California Legislature to improve the state’s film and TV tax credit to keep productions — and jobs — in town. He was tapped for that advisory position in 2014 by L. A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, succeeding the late Tom Sherak.
Ziffren didn’t have to look far for a role model. His father, attorney Paul Ziffren, was a major power broker in Los Angeles from the 1950s through the 1980s, instrumental in bringing to the city the Democratic National Convention in 1960 and the Summer Olympics in 1984. Although the younger Ziffren attended his father’s alma matter Northwestern University as an undergraduate, he had no intention of following him into law. Instead, he majored in philosophy and political science. But when he graduated in 1962, the Vietnam War was ramping up and he enrolled at UCLA Law School.
After earning his JD from UCLA in 1965, Ziffren clerked for Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren during the 1965-1966 term, then returned to Los Angeles and took a job at the firm of his father and uncle, Ziffren & Ziffren, primarily practicing real estate, tax and corporate law.
Unfortunately, “in the late ’60s and ’70s, the country was in a really bad economic state, so a lot of the action in corporate real estate tax disappeared,” he says. “I decided to focus more on media and entertainment, and that’s kind of how my career developed.”
In December 1978, with Ziffren & Ziffren preparing to merge with a larger firm, Ziffren decided to hang out his own shingle with fellow attorney Skip Brittenham. Soon, they were doing innovative work with TV writer-producer and production company clients such as Stephen J. Cannell (“The A-Team,” “Hunter”), Witt-Thomas-Harris (“Soap,” “Golden Girls,” “Empty Nest”) and Miller-Boyett (“Full House,” “Family Matters”), helping them finance their shows with the aid of investment tax credits, retain partial ownership, and reap huge financial rewards when the shows went into off-network syndication.
Overall, the firm’s clientele was evenly divided between buyers (production companies, corporate rights holders) and sellers (actors, producers, directors, writers).
“It was a great advantage to be able to get an inside look at what the buyer wanted and what the seller wanted, because then I could anticipate the arguments on either side,” says Ziffren.
Ziffren put those insights to good work in subsequent years. He helped mediate the WGA strike in 1988; served as lead counsel for independent TV production companies and guilds; was active in matters relating to the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules, widely known as the FCC’s fin-syn rules; stayed involved in various FCC proceedings; and repped the NFL in network contracts.
While his firm’s client list is still rich with writer-producers and other entertainment talent, today Ziffren focuses mostly on corporate clients.
“For 20 to 25 years, I was very active on the buy side, representing premium pay television suppliers or Starz and DirecTV,” he says. “That’s now in the past, but there will be new things like joint ventures or starting up new companies. That’s what gives me kicks.”