Hollywood, Esq.

For Law School graduates making their mark in the high-profile world of entertainment law, a day at the office can mean power lunches with movie stars and negotiations on the next Hollywood blockbuster. Peter Benedek, Katherine Kendrick, Ira Schreck, and Nina Shaw put it all into focus.

By Marc Weingarten

Summer 2009

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When Ira Schreck ’80 graduated from Columbia Law School, he thought he might try his hand at litigation in Washington, D.C. He bought a nice suit, and a tie, and joined the prestigious law firm Arnold & Porter. Before long, though, Schreck felt restless. “I realized that litigation was largely about anger and divorce, and that it was more satisfying to help bring people together who wanted to be together,” he says.

Schreck didn’t know it yet, but he had the perfect skill set to become an entertainment attorney. He also had a deep passion for film and television dating back to his childhood in pre-hipster Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

“Like all kids, I grew up watching a lot of TV. I always loved movies, and in high school, I discovered the theater,” says the affable Schreck. “I just feel very lucky that my passions have intersected with my job.”

Schreck’s firm, Schreck Rose Dapello Adams & Hurwitz, represents a diverse cross-section of talent, including writer-director Jim Sheridan, actress Sarah Jessica Parker, TV and film star Kevin James, and director Ang Lee. Much to his delight, Schreck’s job affords him an opportunity to tinker with the zeitgeist in a meaningful way. “I always found that the most satisfying part of the job is helping clients realize their dream projects and work toward something that touches the culture,” he says. “For example, something like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger or Kevin James’ film Paul Blart: Mall Cop—these films were pet projects for our clients, but they weren’t ‘hot’ properties at the start. Our clients followed their instincts, and both films were tremendously successful. I like to think that our efforts were instrumental in making those films happen. That’s very gratifying to me.”

Schreck isn’t the only Columbia Law School graduate to gravitate toward entertainment law long before it became cool to do so. Nina Shaw ’79 co-founded Del, Shaw, Moonves, Tanaka and Finkelstein, one of the top entertainment law firms in Hollywood, and has been instrumental in negotiating deals for James Earl Jones and Laurence Fishburne, among others. Katherine Kendrick ’86 was a lawyer for Hollywood Pictures, a division of The Walt Disney Studios, before she became general counsel and corporate secretary for DreamWorks SKG, where she has worked with some of the most visionary executives in Hollywood history. And
Peter Benedek ’73 worked as an entertainment lawyer for many years before he became a talent agent and started the United Talent Agency, one of the biggest such agencies in the world.

Given the culture’s current obsession with Hollywood and celebrity, it might seem inevitable that four extremely bright graduates of Columbia Law School would want to make a name for themselves in the realm of entertainment law. But in fact, they can be seen as pioneers—wading into the business at a time when most Law School graduates were looking to establish long-term careers with large firms specializing in corporate law. The common perception among Law School graduates of the ’70s and ’80s was that entertainment law was something practiced on the West Coast by a small coterie of Swifty Lazar types—slick operators with expense accounts at the Polo Lounge. Now, of course, entertainment law is a growth industry on both coasts, and these four trailblazers are ideally positioned for continued success.


Few successful lawyers can boast of the meandering path that Ira Schreck trod before finding his way to entertainment law. The son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, he spent time driving a taxi in New York City and dealing blackjack in Reno before attending Columbia Law School.

Schreck’s inevitable “finding-myself” period during the mid-’70s was like something out of the Paul Newman film The Hustler; after receiving his undergraduate degree in philosophy from SUNY New Paltz, Schreck taught himself a computer system for beating the house at blackjack. He then drove across the country, relocated to Reno, and tried to make a living at cards.

“I didn’t have the means to really win big,” he says. “So I played daily and won small amounts and then finally got thrown out of a casino for card-counting.” So Schreck moved to the other side of the table and became a craps croupier at the Horseshoe Casino in Reno. “I loved doing it so much that I went back after my first year of law school to complete my training as a croupier,” he says.

In 1987, while he was working in business affairs at CBS/Fox Video, Schreck got a call from fellow Columbia Law School graduate Tom Rothman ’80 that changed his life. Rothman was leaving Frankfurt, Garbus, Klein & Selz for a job at Columbia Pictures and wondered if his friend might want to step in. Schreck became a partner with the firm in short order.

It was during his tenure at Frankfurt, Garbus that Schreck honed his skills as an entertainment lawyer, poring over contracts and hammering out agreements involving heavy-hitters such as Kathleen Turner, a huge star at the time. “I cut my teeth on those deals,” he says. “It was trial by fire, but that’s always been my way.” Working with Turner and other big names, such as Al Pacino, Schreck came to realize that the personal representation of creative individuals was his greatest strength.

“I made the decision very early on that I only wanted to work with creative people I liked and respected,” he says. “There are two kinds of entertainment clients: the ones who want the cover of US magazine and worry incessantly about stardom, and the ones who are motivated by doing the best possible work they can do. I wanted to work with the latter.”

Now, with him as the driving force behind Schreck Rose Dapello Adams & Hurwitz, which was founded in 1999, the firm has grown and amassed a classy clientele of industry powerhouses. “If I come back from lunch and go down the phone list, there shouldn’t be one client on that list that I don’t want to call back,” he says. “If I don’t enjoy speaking with someone, then we shouldn’t be working together.”
 

Nina Shaw seconds Schreck’s take on client relations. Of course, Shaw has been working with many of her most famous clients for 20 years or more, ever since she started Del, Shaw, Moonves, Tanaka and Finkelstein with her partner, Ernest Del, in 1989.

One of the first African-American women to forge a successful career in the field, Shaw is a forebearer for an entire generation of lawyers who followed her example. As a partner at Del, Shaw, she has negotiated some of the biggest movie deals of the past two decades for clients who include Cedric the Entertainer and Jamie Foxx.

Born in Harlem to parents who placed a high premium on learning, Shaw attended the Law School at a time when there were very few women in either the student body or the administration. Still, she reveled in her Columbia Law School education. And she didn’t have to be prodded into the legal profession by her parents; it’s something she had wanted to do from an early age. “I didn’t know it was going to be entertainment law necessarily,” she says. “It certainly wasn’t something that a lot of my classmates were thinking of doing.”

Shaw’s first job out of law school, as a junior associate at O’Melveny & Myers, proved to be fortuitous, as the firm handled all the legal affairs for the television company founded by the potentates of ’70s television comedy: Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, producers of All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Good Times, among others.

“Wow, what an education that was,” says Shaw. “Lear and Yorkin were on the cutting edge of so much that we take for granted in the business now, such as first-run syndication rights and spinoffs. I learned so much about how the business worked just by being in on all of that.”

These days, Shaw has her own monumental industry accomplishments to be proud of, and they span decades. Jamie Foxx, for instance, was an ensemble player on the comedy show In Living Color when Shaw started representing him. Laurence Fishburne used Shaw to negotiate his deal for the film What’s Love Got To Do With It? in 1993. Since then, she has negotiated Fishburne’s deals for all three Matrix films, which have been reported as totaling more than $30 million. (Shaw declined to discuss details of client deals.) “It’s amazing to watch the Matrix films and think, this is an iconic part of the culture now,” says Shaw. “It’s very gratifying to be a part of something like that.”

Much of Shaw’s time at the moment is taken up with protecting her clients from the proliferation of identity appropriation on the internet. “Digital usage compliance is a big issue,” she says. “Take someone like James Earl Jones, who is synonymous with Darth Vader. His voice can be used on a blog, or perhaps his image is replicated on some video online. I have to make sure it’s being done legally, because it’s too easy for those things to slip through the cracks.”

When it comes to negotiations, Shaw likes to think of herself as a bit of a sensei in a culture rife with yellers and chair-throwers; the harder the opposite side pushes,
the more composed she gets. “I’m a calm negotiator,” she says. “It does no good at all
to be a screamer, especially since you’re going to be dealing with the same people on future deals.
 

Katherine Kendrick, like Shaw, has proven adept at keeping her cool under pressure. A native of California, the DreamWorks SKG general counsel worked in corporate law at Latham & Watkins before moving into entertainment law and has been with the company since its founding days in 1996. “Being general counsel is about having strong management skills and also creative problem-solving skills that can be applied to a business landscape that’s constantly evolving,” says Kendrick. “I like being challenged, and so do the people I work with. They are not only smart, but they know how to tackle complex issues head-on.”

Kendrick’s long run at DreamWorks means she’s had the privilege of working with three titans of Hollywood: Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen, and Steven Spielberg.

Needless to say, it’s kept her on her toes.

“Jeffrey is a tireless worker,” says Kendrick, who followed Katzenberg from Disney to DreamWorks when Katzenberg left Disney and formed the new studio with Spielberg and Geffen. “He’s very passionate and highly energetic,” she continues. “He’s a visionary and a builder.” Geffen, says Kendrick, “has this uncanny ability to work his way through a complex problem very quickly and hone in on the critical issue. I find myself really doing my homework before I approach him with anything.” As for Spielberg, “he’s very generous, and brilliant, obviously. Working with these men has been professionally exhilarating and always very challenging, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

At DreamWorks, Kendrick has helped orchestrate alliances involving Hewlett-Packard and Intel in connection with the company’s next generation immersive 3-D film technology. Although she spent many years working on deals involving talent for DreamWorks and Disney, Kendrick now finds large-scale corporate partnerships to be more compelling. Besides, she now has a strong team of lawyers under her to handle all the talent deals and intellectual property battles.

“It’s a very exciting time to be working for a media company,” Kendrick says. “New developments in technology present us with evolving distribution and marketing platforms and formats. It’s an ongoing intellectual challenge to find the best ways to protect this company’s IP assets while still fostering our creative spirit. The trick is finding the best opportunities and building the best framework to enable our creative team to deliver first-class entertainment to our audience.
 

Whereas Schreck, Shaw, and Kendrick all came to see entertainment law as an ideal professional destination, Peter Benedek, the co-founder of United Talent Agency, used his time as an entertainment lawyer to jumpstart a related career as a talent agent. After a decade of working for top-notch entertainment firms, he began looking for a change of pace. “It wasn’t like I intended to be an agent,” he says. “I just wanted to find something else to do.”

Benedek grew up in Great Neck, Long Island, the son of a Hungarian emigre who imported textiles for a living. Like Nina Shaw, Benedek found his destiny at an impressionable age. “I read this biography of Thomas Jefferson in second grade, and I knew I wanted to become a lawyer,” he says. “There were no lawyers in my family, but I never found anything more compelling.”

Benedek enrolled in Columbia Law School in 1970 and graduated in the top 20 percent of his class before leaving New York to pursue his dreams on the West Coast.

The move to Los Angeles was traumatic for his parents—“It was like Columbus leaving for the new world,” Benedek recalls—but like an aspiring movie star, the young lawyer knew he needed to entrench himself there if he was going to make it. He secured a job with the mega-firm Kaplan, Livingston in 1977 and stayed there for a decade. In 1987, Benedek and 10 of his colleagues left the firm to co-found Weissman, Wolff, Bergman, Coleman & Schulman, which was exclusively devoted to entertainment law. Shortly thereafter, the William Morris agent Marty Bauer gave Benedek a call. “He was
looking to start his own agency, and something about being an entrepreneur in that business, of being in control of your own destiny, appealed to me,” he says. Bauer-Benedek immediately became one of the top small agencies in Hollywood, with a roster that included writer-director Lawrence Kasdan and Michael J. Fox, Benedek’s former legal clients.

Bauer-Benedek morphed into the United Talent Agency when the firm merged with Leading Artists agency in 1991. Today, UTA is a powerhouse, with a client list that includes actors Johnny Depp and Gwyneth Paltrow, director Judd Apatow, and
TV producers Dick Wolf and David Chase. “You know how they say that people look like their dogs?” Benedek asks. “Well, you tend to attract clients that you’re compatible with.”

United Talent was one of the first agencies to recognize the importance of the digital space as a cultural driver; to that end, UTA has a department devoted to representing online talent and has recruited A-list movie clients such as the Coen brothers
(No Country for Old Men, Fargo) to develop content. Recent projects include
shows primarily found online, such as MTV’s College Humor Show and the WB’s Sorority Forever.

That sort of forward-looking initiative will become all the more important as the entertainment business continues its move into the digital era. Benedek, Schreck, Shaw, and Kendrick will have to adapt, while at the same time protecting clients’ interests as best they can. It’s a vastly different landscape from the one they first encountered upon entering the entertainment law field, but they have no regrets about forsaking corporate litigation for popular culture. “I got into this business because I love movies,” says Benedek. “It’s as simple as that.”

Marc Weingarten is a Los Angeles–based freelance writer who has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Slate magazine.

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Ira Schreck ’80 photographed near the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive