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He Reels In the Big Deals

Entertainment attorney Skip Brittenham has clients on all sides of the table. His many fans see assets, not entanglements.

September 15, 2005|Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writer

To understand what makes Skip Brittenham one of the most powerful entertainment attorneys in the country, picture him fly-fishing.

Standing thigh-deep in one of his favorite roaring rivers, he knows just how to gauge where the biggest trout will be and which fly will catch its attention. Most important, he knows precisely when to strike.

"He's a feller who can go to New Zealand, Mongolia or Argentina and, in a moment's notice, can understand the environment and have his way with those fish," says Buck "Bucky" Buchenroth, who has been Brittenham's personal fishing guide for the last decade.

These same qualities -- patience, cunning, quiet perseverance -- make Brittenham Hollywood's reigning king of the big deal. When it comes to significant entertainment transactions of the last two decades, the 64-year-old has had a line in almost every pond.

"All roads lead to Skip," said Sony Pictures Entertainment Vice Chairwoman Amy Pascal, who often seeks him out for business advice even though he is not her attorney.

It has been years since Hollywood has had a consigliere to whom insiders turn. Lew Wasserman, the former talent agent turned media mogul, played that role until his death in 2002.

Now, some people say Brittenham is as close as the industry gets to an unbiased voice of reason.

"If there's a Lew Wasserman now in Hollywood, I think it's Skip," said client Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax Film Corp.

Brittenham represents more top studio executives than any Hollywood lawyer, not to mention some of the most bankable stars -- Tom Hanks, among others -- and corporate clients such as Pixar Animation Studios. But even though most people outside of Hollywood would recognize Brittenham's famous clients, few have heard of him.

That's by design. Like Wasserman, Brittenham does not trumpet his successes in the media. He manages to create the perception that he is that rarest of Hollywood creatures: a man not guided by his own agenda. Let other entertainment lawyers get profiled in Vanity Fair. Brittenham keeps the spotlight on his clients, not himself.

"It's just not my style to give interviews," Brittenham said when approached about this article.

But behind the scenes, Brittenham is ubiquitous.

"What amuses me most about Skip is he often represents everyone in the deal," said actor Harrison Ford, a longtime client. "And, he does a really good job for everybody ... I've always walked away from every negotiation and thought, 'Jesus, how did he get that?' "

For example, he does deals for actor clients Tim Allen and Eddie Murphy and also represents their agent, William Morris Agency Chief Executive Jim Wiatt. One minute, he's negotiating the executive contracts for 20th Century Fox co-Chairmen Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman. The next he's on the other side of the table from those same studio chiefs, brokering a deal for his director clients, brothers Tony and Ridley Scott.

Over the years, some have questioned whether attorneys such as Brittenham can effectively juggle the interests of competing parties. Several entertainment law firms have been sued for alleged conflicts of interest over the years, and Brittenham's is no exception. In 1992, three such suits were filed against the Century City firm that Brittenham owns with 18 partners.

One of those suits was filed by a former partner, Gregg Homer, after the firm fired him. Homer alleged that the firm made deals that benefited the "more important" clients without disclosing the effect of such deals to its other clients. In so doing, Homer claimed, founding partners Brittenham and Ken Ziffren "were placing their own interests ahead of those of their clients."

Although the firm countered that Homer had been fired for cause and "did not measure up," it nevertheless paid him a cash settlement. Of the two other suits -- filed by former clients -- one was settled, the other dismissed. But the question they raised still lingers: Should any one lawyer represent both the fish and the bait?

Resoundingly, Brittenham's clients -- who are asked to sign four-page waivers anytime a potential conflict arises -- say yes. The reason: Entanglements that would be problematic in any other industry are seen as assets in Hollywood -- as a sign you're really connected. Although he does not represent competing parties in the same transaction, his broad reach inevitably helps to enrich both his clients and himself.

"There's an old saw in the business: If you're not conflicted, you're not wired enough," said Joe Roth, the former Walt Disney Studios chief who became a Brittenham client when he formed his independent film company Revolution Studios in 2000.

And Brittenham is nothing if not wired.

Miramax co-founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein say they will never forget the day in 1993 when they got a call from Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was then chief of Disney Studios. Katzenberg wanted his film studio to buy Miramax and he told the brothers how to close the deal: Hire Brittenham.

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