This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Darrell Miller, Partner/Chair, Entertainment Department at Fox Rothschild LLP.
Darrell Miller is a large picture, realpolitik guy who retains a remarkably balanced overview of creative and business interests, and challenges for his clients.
For 25 years, Miller has focused on advising and deal-making with individual, production, and institutional clients, working in film, television, music, and new media, while emphasizing the necessity of creating multiple streams of income.
In businesses where diversity and inclusion receive so much lip-service talk, but far less action, career multiplier Miller ensures that his clients can shatter glass ceilings, and open doors so that their creative work leads to even greater or new opportunities.
Assisting them in not only establishing a foundation of financial and creative success, but also helps to build their brand, and capitalizes on a rapidly expanding, and increasingly fragmented media landscape.
Miller’s remarkably diverse client list includes: Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Angela Bassett, Courtney B. Vance, Moses Ingram, Teyonah Parris, Tati Gabrielle, Taylor Tomlinson, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Katrina “Kat Tat” Jackson, and such highly in demand creator-showrunners as Cheo Hodari Coker, Rodney Barnes, Charles Murray, and social media influencers DC Young Fly and Draya Michelle.
Another of Miller’s goals is to ensure his clients give real consideration to spending quality time, energy and research on developing basic plans and strategies in order to sustain their success.
Before joining Fox Rothschild in 2001 as a managing partner, Miller launched his own private practice in 1996, where he served as production counsel on television, cable, and film projects. The firm expanded to Miller & Pliakas LLP in 2001, in which Miller was a partner and co-founder.
In 1990, Miller received his Juris Doctor from the Georgetown University Law Center,
He began his legal career in Los Angeles with a five-year stint at the national law firm Lord Bissell and Brook starting in 1990, where his practice included litigation and general corporate law, representing domestic and international companies, business executives, entertainment production companies, and performing artists.
Miller has more than a passing understanding of the creative talent he represents because he was first a professional theatrical performer
After completing studies at Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts, he went on to graduate as a musical theatre major at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (1981-1985), intent on pursuing a career in voice performance, and musical theatre.
Tours with several national and international companies, including off-Broadway, followed before Miller decided to move on to a law career.
Miller is the author of the 2014 entertainment career guide, “The 16th Minute of Fame: An Insider’s Guide for Maintaining Success Beyond 15 Minutes of Fame.”
Your client list includes Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Angela Bassett, Courtney B. Vance, Moses Ingram, Teyonah Parris, Tati Gabrielle, Taylor Tomlinson, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Katrina “Kat Tat” Jackson; creator-showrunners Cheo Hodari Coker, Rodney Barnes, Charles Murray; and social media influencers DC Young Fly, and Draya Michelle.
What are you excited about going forward this year?
All of the people that you mentioned are just doing some really wonderful things, some of which are still incubating, and we are building out. I am just excited to get back into the rhythm of production on the other side of the pandemic. Remember for a period of time there was no production that wasn’t shut down by COVID-19.
Did everything stop on a dime?
Just like that. In the history of the entertainment business, even during the depression, and during times when things were down in the economy, people could still go to a movie, and have a date, and people still had free TV, and could listen to music.
Even following the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941 that led to America entering World War II against the Axis powers, the film industry flourished as the government ordered Hollywood to become a national propaganda arm.
In good times there was even more of it (film entertainment). However, with the pandemic in 1968 (called the Hong Kong flu pandemic of 1968 caused by an influenza virus that resulted in an estimated one million to four million deaths) we weren’t mature enough to do this (shut down). But today, this is the first time in the history of entertainment that 100% production stopped. All production stopped. The pipeline to be filled stopped because everything came to a screeching halt, and there was this paralysis of what to do.
If you think about it, there’s never been a time in the history of entertainment where the entire apparatus that produces the content that we all love stopped.
That was really a profound significant impact.
Has Hollywood returned to full film and television production even as COVID-19 cases have now entered the danger zone in many parts of California? COVID-19 continues raging in much of America.
Very much still raging, and I think that we have to continue to look at it. If you look at the numbers, not everybody is taking it (the pandemic) as seriously as they should in the U.S., and we are not being as informed as we are supposed to be. The numbers are rising, and things are going a little crazy here. It’s not good.
How have you been able to build such a substantial legal practice and outstanding client list, and discover so many young, talented, and promising actors and production personnel that have been drawn to you to be clients?
I was trained. I came out here (to Los Angeles) with no friends, no family, not a connection to Hollywood. I knew from the day that I came that I wanted to build a career because I didn’t think like many of my white colleagues that I would get clients brought to me. I didn’t go to Beverly Hills High with anyone. So I was endlessly committed to building a reputation that someday I would get big enough that people would seek me out more than I would seek others out. It really was that thought of having a mission, and of keeping my head down. A great professor and a great lawyer from my law school days impressed upon me about trying to build a reputation where people talk about you. So I worked six, seven, or eight years while people didn’t even know what I looked like.
In many ways, you are a social connector in that you bring diverse creators together, and with your contacts of several decades, you are able to match them with others to work with.
Yeah. I’m very astute and aware at this point in my career of what I have done. I wasn’t as clear earlier. I think that I did it (connecting people) more as a necessity before. But what I realized is that everybody focuses on the dealmaker as a lawyer. Contracts, money, and who gets the credit. Very few people focus on….and this goes way back to how I was trained, on the advice, guidance, and counsel component of being a good lawyer. And the advice, guidance, and counsel, I kind of separate that, and I say, “Let’s emphasize that. We (as lawyers) all came out of good schools. We all know how to negotiate. We all know what money, and credit is about leverage more than anything else.” But the advice, guidance, counsel; and the architecting of a career, helping people understand how dot A connects to Dot B, and connects to dot C, is key. Or how you can leverage a deal to change the outcome of things in a real profound way; or just how you can approach a deal in a post-collaboration to achieve a goal in a different way than most are envisioning. That advice, guidance, and counseling has been a real barometer with the way that my style of representing people has been; and kind of inspiring them to manifest their creativity or manifest their thinking beyond the walls that everybody tries to keep them in.
Is that the sort of advice in your 2014 book, “The 16th Minute of Fame: An Insider’s Guide for Maintaining Success Beyond 15 Minutes of Fame,” in which you characterize fame as that defining point in a life or career—whether you are a celebrity or not—that has the potential, and capacity to take you to a higher level of success, and to reach your personal or business goals?
Absolutely. You’ve got to change the mindset. You’ve got to think differently, and embrace change. You’ve got to field a new strategy. You’ve got to think in the 21st Century like a 21st Century person. It comes with working in the 21st Century with 21st Century ideas. If you are playing the game that they played in that (20th Century) scenario, then you’ve already lost. The world is so different. From when we started this call, the world is so fundamentally different. You can’t play by the same rules as you had in the 20th Century.
A decade ago only a handful of outlets for TV and film content existed outside of network TV or theatrical releases. Today with a multitude of digital online entertainment platforms, content distribution is endless with the likes of Netflix, Disney+, Apple TV+, Amazon, Prime Video, HBO, HBO Max, Google, Discovery, BET+, A&E, Hulu, MTV2, History, the Food Network, and others.
This is providing greater opportunities than ever for a growing number of emerging actors, producers, directors, and showrunners.
Absolutely. 100%. Helpful, and hurtful to some. I often say, and as you nicely point out, that there is just a lot more concentration of power and control and distribution platforms, and people being part of those distribution platforms. With the diversification of platforms, and opportunities, outlets, and buyers and consumers driving the way that the content is consumed, it is so disruptive than the way that Hollywood used to be. For those who were in power, as it used to be, I think it is not as exciting as it is for those who are able to be nimble, and adjust their practices, lives, and businesses, and embrace what it has become today.
But all of this activity is providing greater opportunities for your clients.
So yes, it’s exciting for someone like me in private practice. I have clients who create for streamers, and other social media platforms as much as they do for broadcasters or cablers. We can find interesting ways to get content before the big distributors. You’ve got to imagine being in the broadcast network game. Imagine being theatrical, and putting all of this money out, and hoping that people come when they would rather stay at home. A lot of different players in the older days that once had monopolies, I don’t think that they are so excited in that they are pulling their hair out trying to maintain market share, trying to maintain their audiences, and their rates, and all of the other stuff that has been disrupted by the field being more level, and with far more players than we had ages ago.
It took decades for Afro-American actors and directors to break into the industry, and alter only slightly how Hollywood operated behind and in front of the camera, and how it viewed black content.
First, when it came to diversity, there was mainstream film fare such as “West Side Story,” “In The Heat Of The Night,” “To Sir, with Love,” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
But mostly there was edgy independent low-budget films like “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” “Uptown Saturday Night,” and the Blaxploitation movies like “Shaft,” “Super Fly,” “Cotton Comes To Harlem, Across 110th Street,” and “Cleopatra Jones.” which used black stereotypes about poverty and drug abuse to put black actors at the center of the action.
Then in the ’80s and ’90s, African American filmmakers like Spike Lee and John Singleton used their films to examine urban and racial tensions, providing a mainstream audience with more nuanced black characters.
Black female filmmakers also began making strides as well. Kathleen Collins’ work in the ’80s paved the way for Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” In 1991 to become the first full-length film directed by an African American woman to get a wide theatrical release in the U.S.
A new generation of leading black filmmakers have since emerged including Antoine Fuqua, Tyler Perry, Tim Story, Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins, Dee Rees, Ava DuVernay, Jordan Peele, Victoria Mahoney, and “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler.
And yet there was a Variety magazine (June 30th, 2020) article by Elaine Low, and Angelique Jackson, titled, “The Reckoning Over Representation: Black Hollywood Speaks Out, But Is the Industry Listening?” It spoke out about the need to lift black voices even further in Hollywood, a town built on the very premise of exclusivity, and gatekeeping.
That the institution itself is imbued with white supremacy, and a patriarchal structure designed to proffer advantages unequally, toward elevating white people, and not elevating people of color.
Most studios and networks boast a slate of inclusion initiatives to showcase acting, directing, and writing talent from communities of color.
But structural shortfalls persist.
A Writers Guild of America inclusion report on the 2019-20 season, pinpointed racial disparity in production ranks. While 51% of staff writers were white, and the rest were people of color, more than 80% of executive producers and showrunners were white, while 20% were people of color.
That article was written two years ago, and I doubt if much has changed.
Wow, that’s unbelievable.
In 2020 actor Kendrick Sampson recruited more than 300 Black creatives — including Tessa Thompson, Sterling K. Brown, Common, Viola Davis, Tiffany Haddish, Issa Rae, Octavia Spencer, and Kerry Washington — to sign a letter denouncing Hollywood for “encouraging the epidemic of police violence and culture of anti-Blackness.”
One of the sections read:
“The lack of a true commitment to inclusion and institutional support has only reinforced Hollywood’s legacy of white supremacy “This is not only in storytelling. It is cultural and systemic in Hollywood. Our agencies, which often serve as industry gatekeepers, don’t recruit, retain or support Black agents. Our unions don’t consider or defend our specific, intersectional struggles. Unions are even worse for our below-the-line crew, especially for Black women. Hollywood studios and production companies that exploit and profit from our stories rarely have any senior-level Black executives with green lighting power.”
Coming in the wake of #MeToo, Hollywood issued public statements decrying racism as thousands of black artists share their experiences with workplace discrimination.
You and others have strongly spoken out about the need to hold the industry accountable when it fails to live up to its stated goals of promoting diversity within its ranks, and you have engaged in innovative deal-making to help make the business more inclusive.
One example is the unprecedented multi-year partnership agreement you negotiated in 2020 between CBS Television Studios, and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to develop and produce scripted, unscripted, and documentary content for linear television networks, and streaming platforms.
The CBS/NAACP partnership includes a commitment to develop content for CBS as well as the ability to sell programming to third-party platforms across the media landscape.
The CBS/NAACP partnership is a very positive way to encourage diversity changes.
It is one effort. It is a new effort. It is a bold new step, and that is how it was sold and envisioned. I really believe, as many people have said, that doing the same things, making big donations, and saying “I’m sorry,” doing the same thing, and kind of reacting for the first five minutes, and then going back to life in the sixth minute after, won’t change things. So the idea of embracing brands at the very conception of content that controls the images which ultimately becomes the content is to me one new way to try something different because what we have tried so far has co consistently failed.
As part of the agreement, CBS Television Studios’ creative leaders will work with the NAACP to establish a dedicated team of executives and infrastructure to acquire, develop and produce programming. The partnership will focus on producing premium content that expands the number of diverse voices contributing to society.
I don’t know if this is the ultimate answer, but it sure as heck can’t be worse than where we are when we are talking about having the entire process filtered through who are more sensitive to character, and to dialogues, to the way that things (productions) are often not even tested until they are put out, and you realize that not a single person of sensitivity or color or voice was even involved in the content process. To me, it makes sense to try to build a legitimate foundation and have legitimate voices come to the table.
It is important to increase the prevalence and volume of positive images of people of color because most people learn about other people and cultures through the images represented in entertainment. Creating more multidimensional characters of color can help move the culture beyond the one-dimensional stereotypes that largely dominate mainstream entertainment.
You know the other thing that triggered this for me was watching these major corporate brands rush to this black organization, or to others, to give their opinions on something before they released it, or before they decided how to market it. So their opinions, their influence, and their ability to help was only good when it is completely flattering, and they then invest millions of dollars and try to jam it down somebody’s throat. What if it’s wrong? What if it at its core misses the point? Why not have that authentic voice in the process earlier so they are less likely to do things that are insensitive going in, and they can’t repair them when they are brought out to them on their way to the market?
You have represented for some time two central African American voices, Angela Bassett, and her husband of 24 years, Courtney B. Vance.
Since his debut in the Yale Repertory Theatre’s original Broadway productions of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize, and Tony Award winning play, “Fences,” Courtney has jumped between stage, TV, and the screen, playing an extensive gallery of strong, vibrant characters in a career that has spanned almost four decades.
Courtney won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for his performance in Nora Ephron’s “Lucky Guy” at the 67th Tony Awards in 2013.
I was there. I did that deal. He is an amazing actor. We met when he was still doing “Law & Order.” He was on that for a long time, and then he kind of drifted off, and people began saying, “Your career might be dead. What are you going to do next?” And we meticulously built things up again, one by one, and brought him back.
In 2016, Courtney magnificently portrayed O. J. Simpson’s cunning defense attorney Johnnie Cochran in FX’s American’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” which opened the door to more prominent roles. His portrayal was So compelling that he won a Primetime Emmy Award.
More recently Courtney has been the lead in AMC’s “61st Street,” one of the numerous TV dramas to look at race in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others, coming in quick succession.
He plays a veteran public defender just days from retirement who gets wrapped up in the case of a black college-bound athlete accused of killing a white Chicago police detective.
“61st Street” is a towering role that fits Courtney like a glove.
That’s an awesome piece, isn’t it?
You represent a number of notable creator-showrunners including Cheo Hodari Coker, Rodney Barnes, and Charles Murray.
A showrunner has overall creative authority and management responsibility for a television series.
I caught Charles Murray’s film “A Cold Hard Truth” which he wrote, directed and produced, on Prime Video last year. It is very impressive.
Charles is another great writer.
Charles Murray has been a writer, producer, and director for over 25 years. A frequent contributor to Lucasfilm and Marvel properties, Murray was also showrunner for the Netflix limited series “True Story,” and he set up the 8-episode limited series “Blood Brothers” with A&E Studios that chronicled the friendship between Muhammed Ali and Malcolm X.
He currently has a slate deal with Redbox Entertainment spanning 6 films over three years. The pact centers on Command Films, a new production company founded by Murray and Marc Danon, a veteran film exec who also has headed original content at Redbox since 2019.
I find it quite fascinating that you represent tattoo artist, Katrina “Kat Tat” Jackson, best known for starring in “Black Ink Crew: Chicago”on VH1. She recently signed a first-look development, and executive producer deal with Paramount to develop and executive produce original content for the studio in collaboration with her production company, Enigma Entertainment Group.
She is a beautiful, smart, and for the lack of a word, boss woman, who now has her own tattoo show, and she has built her own businesses. She has started to move into franchising. I saw all of the promise, and how hard she worked.
Katrina first broke out on “Black Ink Crew: Chicago” for three seasons before leaving in 2017 to grow her brand. She became the first black woman to open a tattoo studio in Beverly Hills, and she has inked celebrities and athletes including Idris Elba, Trey Songz, Faith Evans, and Von Miller.
Who came up with her involvement in “Black Ink Crew: Compton?”
I think that was the network (VH1). Their producers wanted to develop in that area and build that out. She’s in L.A., and they came to us to be involved in that component of it.
You also represent actress, director, and producer Tasha Smith who, mentored by Lee Daniels, appeared on Fox’s series “Empire” across 31 episodes.
Tasha also directed two episodes on Lee’s co-created Fox drama series “Star,” and she directed an episode of Peacock’s new one-hour drama series “Bel Air.” She executive produced, alongside 50 Cent, the Starz series “BMF,” and was the executive producer for the BET documentary, “Strip Down: The Naked Truth.”
I love her to death. She’s a great director now.
She’s returning to work with Lee Daniels on his new horror movie which Netflix scooped up in a bidding war for $65 million. The film stars Mo’Nique, Glenn Close, Rob Morgan, Caleb McLaughlin, and Aunjanue Ellis.
I so loved Tasha playing the role of Carol Hardaway on “Empire.”
Yeah, she did a great job on that. She’s got some great things coming up. You know all my good people.
Ludacris has been your client for almost forever. He was an accomplished hip-hop artist when you started with him. You two worked together to expand his brand across multiple sectors of the entertainment, including, film, TV, merchandising, digital media, and children’s programming.
Believe it or not, this is our 20th year anniversary. My first deal with him was the “2 Fast 2 Furious” film (in 2003 playing Tej Parker) and then we did “Crash” (2004) (playing Anthony, a violent carjacker) that went on to receive 6 Academy Award nominations (winning for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing at the 78th Academy Awards). Then we started doing all kinds of things. But it was 20 years ago this year that we negotiated the deal for his first “Fast and Furious” film.
Ludacris has not only collected a formidable series of film, and TV credits, including as the host for two seasons of MTV’s ‘Fear Factor,” but he has become a pivotal figure in merchandising, digital media, children’s programming, and the saving the planet movement.
In 2008, Ludacris and Tommy Lee teamed up for the 10-episode Destination America series, “Battlefield Earth: Ludacris vs. Tommy Lee.” The show visited 10 American cities, and raised substanial money for environmental issues. In the Las Vegas episode, Ludacris and Tommy set a Guinness World Record for the largest group shower. It took place at Planet Hollywood. and involved more than 1,000 participants.
Saving the environment back in 2008?
Yeah, we were early ones in. It was him and Tommy Lee promoting environmental stuff before it was even cool. An early television show. I will never forget that. We did “The Amazing Race” too. He’s been doing shows on the Food Network (also streaming on discovery+). They have a wonderfully funny show called “Luda Can’t Cook” where he’s paired with a high-end celebrity chef, and they have a fun exchange as he’s learning how to cook.
We have done cognac in France, and headphones in China. We have a children’s animation show based on his older daughter (Karma), a big show called “Karma’s World” that is now running on Netflix around the world in 190 countries.
Now in its third season, Netflix’s “Karma’s World,” produced by Ludacris, has become a t favorite with children and adults alike. The show follows young rapper and lyricist Karma Grant. Her love of music, friends, and community leads her to learn about the world around them, and help her community become a better place. “Karma’s World” continues in a new children’s book, “Daddy And Me And The Rhyme To Be (a Karma’s World …” about the special bond between father and daughter.
It has been an amazing ride watching this young man grow, and really build. It’s been wonderful.
Commercialism has long been one of hip-hop’s prime ambitions. Rappers like Run-DMC, Jay-Z, P-Diddy, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Master P, Ludacris, Usher, Tyler, the Creator, and Kanye West were among the first targeting cross-platform diversification with recorded music, film, and television productions, and aggressive merchandising.
The hip-hop entrepreneurs of the late ‘80s, and early ‘90s were more entrepreneurial than any A-level star in Hollywood. They were the ones that first started looking across platforms, not just vertically in one medium. Basically, they were the first ones saying “I want to cater to my fan base, and I want my fans to enjoy the lifestyle of me, not just the record that I put out.” Everybody else was focused on connecting with that fan through one portal. “If I make movies, come and see my movie, and forget about everything else.”
Rappers led the way of cross-selling by cross-promoting their brands over multiple products and services, vodka, clothes, music, and so on, well before the masses in Hollywood understood how to do it.
But the hip-hop generation with their innovations, their cognac and their vodka, their songs, and their little videos, they were in movies They really were the first very prolific entrepreneurs that inspired generations of others to think, “Oh my God, it really is about the leveraging of the brand more than the leveraging of one particular song.
Ice Cube is an example of a mixed platform star. He jumped from being a rapper into being a bankable movie star. He first appeared in John Singleton’s feature debut “Boyz n the Hood,” a 1991 drama named after a 1987 rap song he wrote.
Ice Cube has since appeared in over 40 films.
Ice Cube’s company Cube Vision recently signed a multi-picture production deal with the Back on the Strip firm Luminosity Entertainment, in association with 5120 Entertainment, and SmokeyScreen, to co-produce feature films and a TV series.
That cross-platform reach wouldn’t have happened a few decades ago.
Absolutely. I feel like I grew up in this era, having been doing this for 25 years plus now, I often have said that people had blinders on before. The TV people didn’t talk to the film people. They didn’t talk to the record people or to the literary people. Nobody talked.
Agents then sort of worked in their own little silos, and believe it or not, my early clients in film and television were the superstars in the music business. They were trying to get into the business, but they couldn’t even get a meeting three floors up with a talent agent where they were making $60 to $100 million with the same agency as music artists touring. So it was just absurd to me that someone is a phenomenon, and everybody is dancing around to and they couldn’t get a meeting, and couldn’t get an audience to get an introduction to someone to potentially be in a film or a television show. That is how I built the business early.
What Prince did in 1984 with “Purple Rain” was quite a feat at the time.
Prince’s “Purple Rain” film had a $7.2 million budget, and went on to gross over $72 million worldwide. Of course, the “Purple Rain” film was supported by its soundtrack album of the same name, which sold over 25 million copies worldwide with the singles, “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” and “Purple Rain.”
After the success of his breakthrough album “1999,” his first Top 10 album on the Billboard 200, peaking at #9, Prince reportedly confronted his then-manager Robert Cavallo and told him he would not renew his contract with him unless he got to star in a studio film. Every studio they had met with rejected the premise of a musician-led film which led Cavallo producing the film himself. Although Warner Bros. was initially hesitant about distributing the film, it was green-lighted only after considerable in-house debate.
Before Troy Carter zipped down the yellow brick road, and met up with Lady Gaga, with whom he formed a sensational collaborative alliance as her manager, he had co-founded Erving Wonder Entertainment which represented such major hip-hop and R&B stars as Eve, Beanie Siegel, Jadakiss, Sleepy Brown, Angie Stone, Floetry, and Nelly.)
When Troy oversaw successful vibey pop marketing campaigns for Black Eyed Peas, Sade, Eve, and Lady Gaga brands recognized that he was able to reach America’s youth culture.
Troy Carter and I cut our teeth when he was representing Eve, and I was representing little shows on the UPN network. I watched him do his thing for a very long time. It is an amazing story of what he did, and how he went on to Spotify and built that up. I’m so proud of him.
In 2003, Eve starred in the UPN television sitcom, “Eve,” as a fashion designer named Shelly. The show, which Erving Wonder Entertainment executive produced, lasted three seasons until it was canceled in 2006.
As widely reported, people of color, especially African Americans and Latinos, consume disproportionate percentages of entertainment products, and services compared to non-diverse communities.
To my mind not embracing diversity is bad business.
Oh, 100%. Well, I think people have learned more by default than as opposed dealing directly with race; when people thought hip-hop and rap music was about black kids in inner cities, and they didn’t understand that hip-hop, at its height, was becoming pop culture. It was about white kids in the suburbs being 70% or 80% of the consumers. People didn’t understand even the audiences much less the influences of the content, and why they would go home, and see a poster of DMX in their kid’s bedroom.
The one thing I heard from managers of rock bands over the years has been, “When is hip-hop going to die?”
It was always a fad.
And I’d say to them, “Well, it was in 1968 that the Last Poets stood in Harlem, and uttered their first poems in public, and created the blueprint for hip-hop. Their poems have since been sampled or quoted by NWA, A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, and many others.
Two years later American poet and jazz musician Gil Scott-Heron in 1970 recorded “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” that has come to be seen as a crucial forerunner of rap.
I can also refer back to DJ Kool Herc using his two record turntables to create loops, and extending the instrumental portion of a song, or to such Bronx-based legends as Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, and Kurtis Blow. Or to the Fatback Band. Or Sugar Hill Gang hitting the Billboard Top 40 in 1980.
Back even further were Jamaican DJs toasting in the late 1950s with Count Matchuki followed by U-Roy, Dennis Alcapone, and Michigan & Smiley.
Yeah, it’s unbelievable. You and I have similar paths, and you touch on things that I have been around for a bit.
The old days was the heyday of the white entertainment power structure, and it is important to understand its long arc of power, and influence in Hollywood bent much of music and film to its own design. Where an entity like MCA owned a talent agency, a film company, a record label, distribution, and theatres while hiring its own producer, director, and actor clients.
Although this was a clear conflict of interest, it was the system in place for decades. MCA chairman and CEO Lew Wasserman had the system down, and he was widely copied.
Exactly. He owned all the distribution and the talent in the system. Probably 95% of all of the high-level professional stuff went through probably 3% of the players, and 90% of the other players fought for the scraps.
There was a disruption in the system that started with the landmark 1969 counterculture film, “Easy Rider,” one of the first successful films to be made outside of the reigning studio system of the period. Released by Columbia Pictures, it earned $60 million worldwide from a filming cost of $395,000.
Along with “Bonnie and Clyde” “The Graduate,” “The Panic in Needle Park,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” “Night of the Living Dead,” “Mean Streets,” and “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” “Easy Rider” kick-started the New Hollywood era of the late 1960s and 1970s which led to major studios gravitated to low-budget films made by edgy independent directors.
Jay Cooper, chairman, West Coast Entertainment Department, at Greenberg Traurig, LLP made the “Easy Rider” deal on behalf of its star Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper.
In his “In The Hot Seat” profile in 2011, he told me:
“The money was put up by Bert Schneider. His father (Abraham Schneider) ran Columbia Pictures. Peter and I went everywhere trying to shop this deal. Peter didn’t have anything written. He had this idea about these druggies who sold drugs, and went across the country on motorcycles. That was the story. Everybody turned it down, including (American International Pictures) Sam Arkoff who did all of the biker pictures. Then Peter was walking down Sunset Boulevard and ran into Bert Schneider, and told him his idea. Peter needed to go off to New Orleans to shoot the New Orleans’ sequence. Bert said, “Okay, here’s $25,000. Go ahead and do it.” Then they financed the balance of the picture.”
Peter Fonda has said he personally paid for the costs of travel and lodging for the crew, saying, “Everybody was taking my credit cards and would pay for all the hotels, the food, the gas, everything with Diner’s Club.
After you graduated from a prominent national law school, and passed the California Bar, you worked for a premier full-service national law firm based in Los Angeles.
I love the legal prank story of the firm’s partners sending you, as the young attorney, to seek out the judge’s tentative opinion. You spent the day scrambling around eight floors of the Los Angeles Superior Courthouse, going in and out of the judge’s courtroom, and even doing research in the downtown public law library, only to return to the law office defeated, frustrated, and very annoyed that all of your school training didn’t prepare you to find a simple tentative ruling.
Of course, a tentative ruling is simply the one-page document taped to the wall outside of the courtroom that gives the judge’s preliminary ruling
This was an initiation to the club. Apparently, this had been done many times before as a prank. You were the latest victim.
What happened was that some of the partners and associates wanted to initiate the new kid on the block. You got the fancy degree. You went to Georgetown. You passed the bar. You do all of this stuff. Just go find something that is just so central. It puts it all in perspective.
This is something they don’t teach you at law school.
(Laughing) Right, law school is so heavily litigator-focused. That is one thing that they teach you but there’s nothing really about profits or deal-making or business or other things outside of briefing and arguing litigation cases. So you have to learn all that deal-making, strategy—the art of deal-making—how to do it, and how to manage client relationships.
Yeah, but you were full of confidence. You earned a Juris Doctorate (J.D.) degree from the Georgetown University Law Center, and then you sat, by choice, for the California Bar, considered the hardest law exam in the country. “Yeah, that should be a snap.”
I was a wide-eyed kid who didn’t know what he didn’t know. The excitement of taking on the world put me in that situation. If I had really known what I was doing I would have smacked my own self out of it. All of my colleagues back East in New York, and D.C., that was kind of the thing to do. Looking at this information superhighway dot.com thing happening I thought might create a bunch of opportunities out West. Either they (Hollywood studios) are going to produce the content or they will be distributing the content. There are just more opportunities (in California). I have to confess to you that I wish I had a crystal ball, but I just had a theory that there would be more things going on if the information superhighway really came to fruition in the late ‘80s. I was curious enough to say, “Worst case scenario, I’m young, and if I don’t pass it (the bar), sure I will go to where all my other friends are (back East).” I just took a leap of faith, really. I passed it, and that leap of faith turned into a whole lifestyle.
Not quite. First, you had to make the leap of working at the national law firm Lord Bissell and Brook, where your practice included litigation and general corporate law, representing domestic and international companies, business executives, entertainment production companies, and performing artists.
Yeah, but just getting into California was a leap. I didn’t know anybody. Didn’t have any connections. Then I wanted to have a reputation, and it was about becoming an entertainment lawyer. First, you learn. They don’t necessarily hire you out of law school to be an entertainment lawyer. No. they don’t. You don’t get that job. When I realized that, I thought, “I’m not a bad guy, they just don’t hire people like me.”
Then it’s about becoming a good lawyer. Having good fundamental skills. Getting some understanding of what litigation is about. I often tell young lawyers that it taught me what a bad deal looks like. Contracts that blow up, everybody is excited to get paid on them. Watching them unfold, seeing how they are dissected, and understanding how to do them better, came out of litigation. I psyched myself into getting into the nuts and bolts anywhere. Get it where you can. Get the biggest firm you can. Learn the personality. Learn the way that the top players do it, take that skill set, and transfer it over to what you ultimately want to be. That was the plan.
Often contracts you are sent are little more that duplications from other company contracts.
Yeah, that’s cut and paste. In the ‘40s and ‘50s what they were doing was even worse than that. They were just taking rights, and taking ownership.
First thing you find out about in Hollywood is the term work-for-hire.
Yeah, what does that mean, right? As you said, if this is a servitude, you own nothing. You create the product. You make the product. You own none of the product. You don‘t even have to participate in the exploitation of the product. You simply get paid for services rendered while the product is being made.
At Disney in the ‘50s actors couldn’t even take home their mouse ears and they also had to pay if the ears were damaged.
Exactly. Then the pendulum swung a little bit the other way. But you are 100% right.
With most standard music industry contracts artists pay not only for the production costs, but also ancillary costs, including for tour support.
There’s a little known section in the US Copyright Act of 1976 enabling any copyright owner to get their rights back after 35 years. Meaning, if you wrote or released a song with a label or a publishing company after January 1st 1978, you can terminate your agreement, and get all your rights returned.
There is a time limit on this.
There is only a three-year window once you hit the 35-year mark to let your rights owners know you want out.
The whole idea of recapturing. The real determining factor there is if it really was a work that was assigned versus a work for hire. Those who work under those work for hire kinds of an agreements are less successful. But those who…Ludacris is one of those guys. This young kid created his own record, made his record at home, and then went to Def Jam Recordings, and said, “Would you guys distribute my record?” He assigned it, and it’s not necessarily work for hire. Those things recapture under the law. He had the leverage to fight for his interest otherwise his copyrights were reversed.
Most music assigned for film and television is work for hire. Do studios and production companies picking up music from outside sources still try to do it under work for hire terms?
They try, particularly if you are unknown, and if it’s an original, they definitely try on the film entertainment side. That is one of the battles that I have quite a bit because now they want to steal from someone who is a little bit known, and they will even fight sometimes over writer’s share which is sacrilegious. But they will try in the film and TV business because they are so used to owning everything, kind of pairing it with the music business in how certain things are protected and preserved and controlled. They don’t want those things interfere with their film’s independence.
The sad thing is that in the music industry in the 1950s grabbing a share the songwriter’s writing credit, along with the music publishing, was quite common.
That was how it was. That was thievery at its height.
Chuck Berry recorded “Maybellene” for Chess Records in 1955. When he finally got his hands on a copy of the record, he saw he was listed as only one of three songwriters. The others were DJ Alan Freed, and Russ Fratto of Midwest Record Pressing. Chuck fought for years to recover the full rights to the song.It wasn’t until 1986 that Chuck Berry was finally credited as the song’s sole composer.
Besides hip-hop I know you are a fan of classical, show tunes, and jazz.
I studied classical music, but I started out as a drummer. I grew up loving and watching Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Thelonius Monk. The jazz greats. As I got into the performing arts school, I got into Broadway, and classic voice. For me, the classic singers, and the musicians of old school jazz were icons, and amazing influences on my musical influences.
After completing studies at Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts, you went to the University of Cincinnati, College Conservatory of Music intent on pursuing a career in voice performance, and musical theatre. You graduated from UC with honors in 1985.
Tours with several national production companies followed, along with a lead role in the jazz opera “Leo,” and an international tour of the musical “The Princess and the Pea.”
But you decided to take your career in a different direction, law.
Nevertheless, the spark for theatre remains with you. In a master class for musical theatre and drama students at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music a few years ago, you delighted the group by opening with a song from “Les Misérables.”
Why didn’t you go on to become a leading theatrical performer?
I loved performing. I give it 1,000% of credit for changing my entire life in getting out of Cincinnati, It was standing on the Chowpatty Beach in then Bombay, now Mumbai, and seeing people there and how the world was different in India. Looking at this little African American kid from a three mile-radius in Cincinnati, Ohio standing on the beaches in India having travelled up into the hills of Candi, I had an epiphany.
Most of the people you knew growing up lived and died within a three-mile radius in Cincinnati. People rarely left town, and when they did, they often returned relocating to another geographic area.
Yes. Initially, I had wanted to produce art, and continue to do international productions, and see the world through the eyes of the art.
And that is what got me to law school.
When I got into law school in 1987, it was after the Black Monday crash (the stock market crash on October 19, 1987), and the world was upside down. I came out (of law school) in ’90 when the world was still upside down. We really hadn’t recovered. And Broadway was dead. I didn’t know TV at that point. There was pop music. I said, “I have a law degree. I’ve traveled around the world. I’ve got this amazing story coming from blue collar to performing, and becoming successful, and making more money than 98% of the people that I know. How can I parlay this into more, while society is trying to figure out how it is going to come out of this current recession that we are in?” It really was facing this information superhighway. Over 500 channels. 497 more than ABC, CBS, and NBC.
I just needed to follow a path in society despite the economics being tough. Getting in was tough, and even entertainment was tough. Once I got in, and I started seeing things happen, and started seeing the world, and started seeing more opportunities than I even imagined I found I had the prospect to be something that no one had ever done before. The left side of my brain, having performed, and traveled all around the world, and having done operas, off-Broadway, and having done three national tours. Then I had this law degree from this national school. Combine that all together, and really put a career together that would either work; or if it didn’t work out, I’d go back to singing. But it started working out.
As you have written in your book there are serious perils to embracing and enjoying celebrity fame. The tabloids, newspapers, blogs and, social media are filled with stories of celebrities who have come and gone due to their bad behavior.
It does seem that black celebrities are held more accountable than white celebrities.
Mel Gibson faced an expulsion prompted by his infamous Malibu DUI arrest in 2006 during which he unleashed an anti-Semitic rant. That was followed by leaked tapes in 2010 where he screamed racist remarks, at his then-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva. She later alleged Gibson was physically abusive.
All of this diminished Gibson’s star power, and made him virtually un-hireable but that was short term. White male privilege and power permitted Gibson to bounce back, and he currently has supporting roles in direct-to-streaming films such as “Dangerous,” “Last Looks,” and “Father Stu,” despite continued accusations of anti-Semitism, homophobia, and racism.
Popular actor Will Smith, and former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett have both generated fierce backlash for their actions of late. Unlike Mel Gibson, the Afro-American pair may be sling-shot out of the commercial mainstream for good.
I don’t know if Will Smith can come back.
It’s hard. Yeah, absolutely. But that has been a general perception with the community. As always, that’s a very hard standard. You can have the feeling that the system works against you disproportionately, and you often think about color in the business. Will Smith may be able to come back. But often by the time that he would start to come back 10 years later, he’s going to be a very different person, and he can rehabilitate himself.
I can’t imagine the pressure on Will Smith now.
Yeah, and Jussie…
How can one deal with Jussie Smollett’s 150-day sentence in jail, and 30 months probation for allegedly lying to police about the 2019 staging of a hate-crime attack against himself?
It has been suggested that he’s going to be kinda treated like O.J. Simpson. He didn’t kill anyone, but it’s a polarizing issue, and people are really…..the underlying issue is gone. It’s just about that there is a (negative) thing for this young man. It’ll be interesting to see if he ever gets another break.
The late Johnnie Cochran did a pretty good job leading in the defense and criminal acquittal of O. J. Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. Despite an acquittal, his film career flamed out.
Johnnie Cochran did a wonderful job, but in the minds of so many, O.J. was guilty. That he did it. My point is that the perception is the state of mind. Not even the act is important anymore. It is the (public) state for O.J. that, “We really believe that you did it, right? You killed somebody.” The idea, even if it was not proven in a court of law, the state of mind still impugns that guy’s character and credibility for the rest of his life, over the perception of what people believe he did even in the face of a verdict to the contraire.
With the defamation case between actors Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, prompted by her 2018 Washington Post op-ed as a representative of domestic abuse, the jury found that each had defamed the other, awarding $2 million in damages to Heard and $10.35 million to Depp.
The way the trial was processed, being broadcast on TV, and via social media, it became such a circus as Johnny Depp’s history of substance abuse violent outbursts and crude text messages about his ex-wife read aloud, were dredged up.
While Johnny Depp won the case and certainly won in the court of public opinion, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he will go back to the same status he once had in Hollywood. It all depends on whether or not Hollywood studios are willing to give him another chance.
The five films in the “Pirates” franchise starring Johnny Depp have brought in more the $4.5 billion worldwide.
I still think it’s going to be a mountain to climb before Hollywood welcomes Johnny Depp back with open arms. Even with the trial win, his mystic and star power has been severely damaged and Hollywood will probably at least allow a cooling off period before banking on him to carry a multi-million dollar franchise film. Johnny Depp may not be given the same 10-year sentence as Will Smith, but I don’t think he will be headlining big studio films by next summer either.
Johnny Depp, and British guitarist Jeff Beck will release a 13-track album, titled “18,” on July 15th. The cover features an illustration of Beck and Depp as 18-year-olds that was drawn and designed by Beck’s wife Sandra. Leading up to the album’s release, Beck has launched his European tour with Depp as a special guest.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is a co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.