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COMPANY TOWN | THE BIZ / CLAUDIA ELLER

Jury's In: Here's One Tough Hollywood Lawyer

May 06, 1997|CLAUDIA ELLER

What Melanie Cook didn't realize as an impassioned teenager back in the late '60s, sitting around her family dinner table fighting to get her ideas heard, is how well it would prepare her for the daily battles she'd have to wage years later in Hollywood.

Mastering the art of debate and positioning at an early age has served Cook, 43, well over a 15-year career in which she's evolved into one of the most high-powered and well-respected entertainment attorneys in the industry. Two weeks ago, she was named Entertainment Lawyer of the Year by the Beverly Hills Bar Assn. Cook is the first woman ever to receive the prestigious award in an industry where there are only a select group of powerful female attorneys.

"Growing up in a loud family where everybody thinks they're right was great training for this job," says Cook, who represents some of Hollywood's most prominent, colorful and, in some cases, difficult personalities, including Tim Burton, Barry Sonnenfeld, Madonna, Keanu Reeves, Holly Hunter, Laura Dern and producer Scott Rudin.

Cook, a partner at Bloom, Hergott, Cook, Diemer & Klein, was raised in a liberal Democratic family in Orange County, where her father was a judge and her mother was a community volunteer, activist and distant relative of the late liberal-cause attorney Clarence Darrow.

"You got asked your opinion a lot" on such hotly contested issues of the '60s as legalization of pot, the Vietnam War, civil rights and freedom of speech, Cook says.

"It helped me because I'm not afraid to have an opinion--even an unpopular opinion," Cook says. "And I learned there's room for other people's opinions," a lesson Cook says has been invaluable in helping her work in collaboration with agents and managers on client deals.

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As part of a team that typically includes multiple representatives, lawyers play a key role in a client's careers. They not only review contracts, they help structure and negotiate deals that help establish a client's clout in the industry and also set precedents. They collect a 5% fee on transactions, compared with an agent's 10% cut and a manager's 10% to 15%.

Although each representative has traditional roles (agents and managers usually are more involved in creative decisions), the lines are becoming increasingly blurred in today's market.

"Lawyers are almost always involved now because so many of these deals are so complicated and the stakes are so high," Cook says. "Agents and managers really want the attorney on the phone with them in any situation."

Cook, who also represents five top animators at Disney and several key TV writer and producer clients, says of the changing marketplace: "It's very interesting times."

It's a time when she'll negotiate a deal for a client on a $100-million movie one day, a $4-million one the next.

With the stakes as high as they are and the economics of the business as bad as they are, lawyers like Cook are increasingly structuring complex back-end deals for clients who are paid less than their normal upfront fees on movies they want to make.

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Cook devised a creative back-end deal for her actor client James Spader on David Cronenberg's moderately budgeted and controversial film "Crash," guaranteeing the actor a hefty profit participation in specific foreign territories. "It's turned out to be a deal that worked out well for the client and producer," she says.

Likewise, on some mega-budgeted movies, where the producer, director and stars may normally be profit participants from the first box-office dollar a studio collects (rather than after it recoups its costs), lawyers also have to be creative in the deals they make.

"With the escalating budgets, the big fees paid to actors and all the first-dollar gross participants, it can get very crowded at the back end of a picture," says Cook, noting that in negotiating these kinds of deals there has to be flexibility and accommodation in order to get the movies made.

It's also the case today that some studios, particularly Paramount, have decided the best way to tackle the escalating cost issue on movies is to look to share the risk with partners.

"The wave of the future is that studios are looking for alternative financing sources on many of their movies," says Cook, who often finds herself involved in helping put these kinds of packages together.

Studio executives who have to sit across the negotiating table from Cook say she is smart and knows her craft well, and while she can be extraordinarily tough at times, she has the uncanny ability to extract what she wants without making the opposition feel like they have been taken.

"She's one of the best lawyers to work with because I know I have a partner, not just an adversary," says Paramount Pictures business affairs chief Bill Bernstein. "She can define solutions to really tough problems and has inexhaustible patience to stay with the issues and make tough transactions succeed by coming up with creative solutions to get deals closed."

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