The Oscars, Reposted.

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Since this year’s Academy Awards are on Sunday, I’m reposting my August 28, 2007 post, “Credit Where Credit Is Due: Is There Enough Room On Awards Night For More Producers?” for Dealfatigue readers.

Two pictures in contention – “Michael Clayton” and “Juno” – each have four credited producers but according to the Academy’s website, only three producers on each of these pictures are eligible to accept the Best Picture award. So if either of these pictures picks up the award for Best Picture, apparently one producer won’t be getting an Oscar but the other three will. This, despite the fact that the Motion Picture Academy’s rules allow for the inclusion of an additional producer under “extraordinary circumstances.”

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After five producers received Best Picture Oscars for “Shakespeare in Love” in 1999, the Motion Picture Academy placed a three producer per Oscar limit on any film under contention. The Academy also required the honored three to be fully functioning producers on the pictures; studio execs, personal managers and lawyers (oh, well) need not apply.

Subsequent to enactment, certain producers who were credited on “Crash,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Departed” but eliminated for award contention by this rule made some compelling objections against it. As a result, the Academy is relaxing its requirements, albeit slightly, to allow for the inclusion of one additional producer under certain rare and extraordinary circumstances. Each of the producers must be credited as “producer,” thereby excluding any individuals with executive producer or associate producer credits.

Meanwhile, the Television Academy is tightening its eligibility requirements in an effort to “crackdown on producer credit inflation” by capping the number of individual producers who can receive an Emmy for a comedy series at 11 and a drama series at 10. But even with these higher numbers, exceptions seem to be proliferating with “Gray’s Anatomy” and “House” each having grandfathered eligibility for 13 producer nominations.

Note that neither of these rules limit the number of producer credits accorded to any motion picture or television program. They just limit the number of producers eligible for award nominations. Nevertheless, the academies are right to be concerned with credit dilution. These awards are intended to acknowledge the creative efforts of those responsible for the works in contention. They are also a great way to increase box office gross. As I have said elsewhere in this blog, credits are “the coin of the realm” in the industry and diluting any credit reduces their value just like real currency. However, it is wrong-headed to set arbitrary caps on the number of producers eligible for an award as a means of addressing this capricious credit problem. Mandating that all award eligible producers render meaningful, creative services is a far more equitable way to go.

Until the academies modify their position, reps will need to be creative to increase their clients’ chances. Although the Motion Picture Academy asserts that it is “not bound by any contract or agreement relating to the sharing or giving of credit and reserves the right to make its own determination of credit for award consideration,” I have been involved in several negotiations where reps for producers (myself included) negotiated producer credit order “for all purposes, including award consideration.” Without a more logical approach, it is inevitable that the contractual intent of the parties to producer agreements versus the subjective consideration of the academies will be tested in the near future.

Chorus Line Dancers Make A New Deal

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Although “A Chorus Line” opened on Broadway over thirty years ago, the dancers who signed away their life story rights as the basis for the musical back in 1974 recently renegotiated the terms of their deal. The dancers originally signed away these rights for $1 each during “workshop” sessions for the musical.

In 1975, Michael Bennnett, the producer, choreographer and co-writer of the book for the show, renegotiated these terms after “A Chorus Line” moved to Broadway; dividing about one-tenth of his own royalties and about one-third of his rights income derived from the show and its subsidiary rights with the dancers. “This kind of arrangement has now become standard, though with less generous terms, for people involved in workshops that lead to Broadway productions,” wrote Campbell Robertson for The New York Times.

Apparently, many of the dancers remained unsatisfied with these terms. For a more complete chronology, read here.

The Bennett Estate’s recent revival of the show on Broadway triggered the renegotiations. The previous agreement only applied to the original Broadway production not to first class productions like Broadway revivals and related road shows. The revival presented the dancers with a unique opportunity to renegotiate. After 16 months, the dancers successfully negotiated an additional (undisclosed) share of revenues in the current production as well as in all past and future first-class productions of the show.

The “Chorus Line” renegotiation provides broader implications to deal making for two reasons:

1. Leverage only comes from immediately recognizing the other party’s needs and fears in a particular deal and then effectively using that leverage in negotiations. Accurately assessing your leverage can be tricky since your own needs and fears are always in play (this is so even if you have representation – e.g., the writers strike negotiations).

Here, the Estate wanted to mount a new production of “A Chorus Line” which required additional permission from the dancers. The original show and subsidiary rights grossed over $280 million. Clearly, the Estate was a motivated negotiator with that much money at stake. Each of the 37 dancers however, was unorganized and had differing agendas. I suspect the 16-month lag in closing this deal was due in part to those detracting elements on the dancers’ side of the equation.

2. We now live in an era of franchised content – “everything old is new again” as the show tune goes. Even early-stage deals (aka deal memos) should be negotiated accordingly with an eye towards future revenues from media not even conceived at the time the deal is struck. If the deal is worth papering, it is worth papering thoroughly. Opportunities to renegotiate may later prove to be few and far between. In this case, it took the dancers over 30 years to get a taste of these revenues. Most people aren’t prepared to wait that long.

WGA Deal (Pretty Much) Closes. Now Let The Healing Begin.

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Everywhere you look, change is in the air.

All indications point to the writers strike being called off by Monday; certainly by sometime next week, at the latest. This is great news but it will likely take many months for the industry to get back on its feet and much longer to discern how the industry changed forever as a result of the strike. With NBC head Jeff Zucker talking about changing the business model that dominated the development and production of television shows for the past 50 years, you can be rest assured that some things will never be the same.

The strike in many ways affected a discreet group of people working in the business: the major studios and networks and those writers employed by them. This group by no means represents the entire entertainment industry.

Despite the strike, many non-signatory independents continued to do business and there was a boon in reality television production. Scribes writing screenplays for non-signatory companies continued to write. Nevertheless, there remained a cloud of dread over the entire industry.

Now that the strike appears to be over, I expect that the most dramatic short-term effect will be a spike in industry-wide morale rather than a spike in production. In my negotiations with reps this week, most are optimistic about the near future. To be sure, there is much to be happy about. However, it is unlikely that there will be a significant difference between working conditions over the next few weeks and those of the last few.

The WGA’s rank and file must approve the new contract (though it appears that the strike will be called off while the details are worked out). Many TV shows will remain shut down until next season; some shutting down permanently, making it unlikely that many writers and crew will have jobs to return to next week. The local economy will continue to languish; with industry job losses and mortgage foreclosures likely continuing into the spring if not longer.

However, the new deal should make many writers happy in the longer term. Go here for a summary of the tentative deal. The most notable deal points are the WGA’s exclusive jurisdiction over the Internet and cell phones, a residual kicker in new media reuse fees and separated rights. I will provide a more detailed analysis of the tentative deal in another post.

It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, the WGA’s exclusive Internet jurisdiction will have on those writing new media content. Although many writers of podcasts and similar content will be clamoring to join the Guild, Internet writing services apparently don’t apply towards membership in the WGA. Podcasts and other web content are not generally produced by signatories to the WGA agreement. Consequently such services will not be subject to the WGA’s jurisdiction despite the terms of this deal.

Despite the lack of details, most of my clients writing new media content for the Internet who are not yet Guild members will still expect the new agreement to analogously apply to their writing services even if their employer is not a signatory. Signatories for their part will no longer be able to hire non-WGA scribes to create new media content. Regardless of signatory or membership status, it is safe to say that these developments will likely mean big changes for new media creatives and those that hire them across the board.

The Negotiation Culture: The Approach That (Might Have) Resolved The Strike

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As of this writing, news outlets are cautiously optimistic that striking writers will be able to close a deal with the AMPTP within the next few days
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But what broke the impasse? Writers’ dwindling bank accounts? The studios’ mounting revenue losses? The Oscar telecast? While all of these elements were contributing factors, there’s no doubt that the addition of studio principals to the negotiations made all the difference.

Several weeks ago, Alfredo Barrios, a former corporate lawyer turned writer and WGA strike captain, posted a missive on a pro-WGA blog, unitedhollywood.com urging that studio principals become directly involved in talks in order to restart negotiations. Regardless of which side you’re on, and despite Alfredo Barrios’s obvious bias in favor of striking writers like himself, Barrios eloquently describes the “psychology” of the deal for both sides; a mindset that ultimately required the principals to take the lead in strike negotiations.

The following is an edited version of Barrios’s post. You can read it in its entirety here.

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BASIC RULES
First, understand the relationship between Nick Counter and the studios. It’s essentially a lawyer-client relationship. The AMPTP is run by lawyers like Nick Counter and Carol Lombardini. Think of it as an in-house law firm. Their goal is to “negotiate” deals with unions on behalf of their clients – the studios.

As lawyers, Counter and Lombardi have to justify their paycheck. What does that mean? They have to add value. They’ve promised to deliver a more favorable labor deal than the studios would get without them. Otherwise, there would be no point in hiring them (or more aptly, keeping them around). So our loss is their gain. And the bigger our loss, the bigger their gain.

Now here’s the thing to remember, fairness and reasonableness have NOTHING TO DO with their approach. No corporate lawyer I’ve ever known has ever met with a client and promised to get them the most “fair and equitable deal” possible. That’s not their goal. Instead, they promise to save them a lot of money – remember, added value. If the studios were genuinely interested in reaching a fair and equitable deal, the CEOs and their CFOs would talk directly to our negotiating committee and financial people, and a deal could be reached today – by the way, this is what we’re driving towards. We will know we will have won when the CEOs and their CFOs talk to us directly. [Editor's Note: as we all know now, this is what happened here].

CEOs hate uncertainty. They run their businesses based on long-range plans that are based on long-range assumptions. So as a lawyer, you do your very best to put their mind at ease when faced with an inherently unstable situation – be it a lawsuit, a takeover deal, or a strike. You say to them, “You don’t have to worry about a thing. We have this under control.” Then you spell out what you believe (more often hope) is the most likely outcome. “We feel confident that we can get this suit dismissed at the pre-trial stage;” “ get this deal closed by Christmas;” “resolve this strike by_______ on ________ terms.” The CEOs nod their heads happily, confident that their well-heeled, well-paid lawyers are looking out for their interests, and then go about their business.

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Going back to CEO peace of mind. This comes in a couple of forms. First, lawyers tell their clients that they won’t have to get their hands dirty. Lawyers will be the bad cops on their behalf. They’ll serve as a shield for their clients. Lawyers always want their clients to feel comfortable – that’s part of what’s promised. “Go about your life. Don’t worry about a thing.” Second, it comes in the form of laying out how things will play out. “You can expect that the plaintiffs will engage in several months of discovery;” “the company you’re hoping to acquire will seek a white knight;” “the strike will lose steam and the writers will fragment.” All things that have a very good chance of happening. And when they do, the lawyer looks like a genius, and his client thinks, “Man, I’m in really good hands. I have nothing to worry about.” It’s about managing expectations.

THE LAWYER’S STRATEGY

Lawyers try to do three things to their adversaries: (1) get them to doubt the validity of their position; (2) undervalue whatever cards they’re holding (in other words, underestimate whatever leverage they have); and (3) kill their resolve.

How does a lawyer get an adversary to doubt his position? Well, in litigation, it comes by spinning the facts. In transactional deals, by spinning the financial numbers. And in a strike situation, by spinning both. One common technique is making a nonsensical argument so many times that it begins to take on the air of a legitimate one and eventually some people (judges, jury, the public in general and sometimes even your adversaries) begin to accept it as truth. Lawyers are masters of this. Think of these doozies: “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit;” “Smoking doesn’t cause cancer;” and my personal favorite, “We don’t have a business plan for or any real revenue from the Internet.” Or how about that $130 million offer that the studios supposedly made us several weeks back? The one that didn’t actually add up. Facts and numbers are spun every day in the courtroom, in the negotiating room and in the press by lawyers.

Now, here’s the thing to remember. It’s the lawyer who does the spinning. No CEO wants to do it. Why? Because so many of them want to be known as “straight shooters” – i.e., guys who don’t lie. Plus, they like to be liked. And going out and spinning facts and numbers… well, that’s like acting like a lawyer. Like Nick Counter. That’s why they hired him to do it. They want to be comfortable. Notably, neither Counter nor any of the CEOs has actually done any real press interviews to defend their position. Not hard to see why: it’s utter nonsense. So they spin in press releases or “leaked” stories that are regurgitated by mouthpiece trade papers and other seemingly “unbiased” but wholly bought off parties.

And how does a corporate lawyer gets an adversary to lose confidence in whatever leverage he has? One way is to engage in positional bargaining. That means anchoring your negotiating position to an extreme and unprincipled number over such a long period of time that your adversary starts to doubt the cards he’s holding and eventually moves off of his number and gets closer to yours. That’s what the AMPTP has been attempting to do with its new media proposals – or actually, lack of proposals. They’ve anchored to basically zero payments for new media in the face of our fairly principled new media proposals. They’re hoping that doubt will creep into our psyche – “Wow, man, those companies are really holding to that number, maybe our bargaining position isn’t as strong as a I thought. Maybe we should take whatever the DGA gets.” And so on…

Once you start down that path, you’re losing your resolve. The corporate lawyer knows you’ll start to rationalize why you should take a really bad deal. And you start to buy into the arguments he’s making – “That lawyer of yours isn’t doing you any favors.” “I hate to tell you this, but you’re wasting a lot of time and energy with this case. It’s a loser.” “As a guy who knows, you should take what we’re offering you because it’s not going to get better.” Sound familiar? It’s the sort of stuff being put out by the AMPTP’s PR guru, Chris Lehane, who, by the way, is also a lawyer – and a classmate of mine from law school. Small world, huh? Couple this psychological warfare with the increasing expense of fighting… and people will crack.

Posture and overwhelm with superior power – or the semblance of power. That’s Corporate Lawyering 101.

So… how do we win?

OUR STRATEGY

In my experience, the guys that win against corporate lawyers and their clients – and believe me, I’ve seen it happen – are the guys that (a) never lose sight of their cards – in other words, aren’t fooled into believing that they’re holding garbage, and (b) play lots of offense.

I’ll begin with playing offense. That means taking the fight to the other guy’s client – the decision makers – the CEOs. Remember, THEY LIKE TO BE COMFORTABLE. That’s what their lawyer promised them they would be. So how do you take the fight to them? Well, in litigation, you bring them into the game by making them the target of discovery – you depose them, go through their papers, ask them all sorts of question. You take them out of their comfort zone. You make them the focal point of the case… they’re the bad guy. In transactional matters, say a takeover attempt where you represent the buyer, you go after the “entrenched management” that wants to deprive the shareholders of the real value of their holdings… they’re the bad guy. In a strike, you hold the CEOs accountable. Why? Because they are ultimately the bad guys… the buck stops with them, and they need to be reminded of that always. Counter is just their hired gun.

And by taking the fight to them. I mean, maintaining picket lines at the studios at peak levels, relentlessly picketing locations, continuing to put out creative videos that entertain and inform people about the strike, denying waivers to award shows and picketing those shows, seeking alternative ways to put out creative work on the Internet for pay, etc.

Playing this kind of offense serves a couple of purposes. First, when a CEO drives through the studio gates, or hears about how a location shoot was impacted by picketing (like for example, when an actor leaves the set or a day has been added to the schedule), or sees how his untenable bargaining positions are being ripped apart on websites, or is told about how his award show is falling apart, or reads how Google is about to form a competing entertainment powerhouse, it all collectively begins to call into question the promise that Counter made – i.e., that we would crumble. It’s a daily reminder that we are not losing our resolve. It makes him worry. His expectations aren’t being met. Things are uncertain again. And it begins to chip away at Counter’s credibility as the guy who could resolve the strike with minimal inconvenience to the studio CEOs.

This last point is important. Why? Because the way you win is by taking the lawyer out of the equation. Deny him the promise that he made to his client – i.e., that he would add value by battering all of us down. Once the CEOs begin to believe that we’ll stick to our guns until we get a fair and equitable deal, that’s when we’ve won. That’s when the CEOs and their CFOs will step in and begin to deal directly with us. Why not Counter? Because his job wasn’t to deal with real and fair numbers; it was to screw us. Once he fails at that, it’s time for others to step in. Trust me, it happens.

But it requires believing in the cards you’re holding – your leverage – and sticking it out. The bigger the show of resolve, the faster the CEOs will dispatch Counter. As profit losses mount and their share prices take bigger hits, the studios will realize that holding out for Counter’s promise looks increasingly like a fool’s game.

But the CEOs will only step in if they believe a fair a reasonable deal can be reached. That’s why it’s important to always maintain principled bargaining proposals on the table – as I believe we have throughout. Unlike Counter, I don’t believe we’re engaging in the positional bargaining. Having said that, I think we made one very serious mistake in continuing to keep our DVD proposals off the table. Bad faith bargaining – like the type that Counter has engaged throughout – can never be rewarded, and I have heard no compelling reason to keep our DVD proposals off the table.

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As for acting like “nicer” and “more accommodating” guys and gals… Well, let me just say that in all of my years as a corporate lawyer, “nice” and “accommodating” adversaries who never stuck to their guns and didn’t bring the fight to us never got better deals. They only get worse ones. So don’t buy into the our leadership’s too militant line of argument. They’re not. They’re being appropriately tough. Trust me, you wouldn’t want it any other way. Now it’s up to the rest of us to hang tough with them.