February 22, 2008 / 12:30 AM / 10 years ago

Lawyer's steady hand guided Hollywood writers deal

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter, ESQ.) - Lawyers get blamed for a lot of Hollywood’s ills: hyper-litigiousness, protracted deal negotiations and risk-averse studios.

Striking members of the Writers Guild of America, West rally in Hollywood, California November 20, 2007. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Yet it shouldn’t go unnoticed that when the Writers Guild of America strike brought the industry to a standstill for 100 days, two of the town’s top talent attorneys played productive roles in making things right.

You never saw Alan Wertheimer in post-strike celebrations last week alongside WGA brass and executives like News Corp. president Peter Chernin and Walt Disney Co. CEO Robert Iger. But Wertheimer’s steady hand — like that of Ken Ziffren, who stepped in to help the Directors Guild of America close its speedy deal with the studios — helped the negotiators get past the personal squabbles.

“Alan is a very careful negotiator,” says WGA general counsel Tony Segall who, with guild brass, decided to bring Wertheimer aboard in the strike’s final days as talks got serious. “Also, he was a familiar face for the executives. He’s been around awhile and those relationships were key in the final stretch.”

Wertheimer, an avid softball player, honed those relationships playing hardball for more than 25 years for A-list writers like Eric Roth, Callie Khouri, Frank Darabont and producer J.J. Abrams.

Those deals, and Wertheimer’s representation of several WGA board members (including Oscar-winning “Rain Man” scribe Ron Bass, a former lawyer who practiced at Wertheimer’s firm 20 years ago before becoming a client), made him a natural fit for a role similar to Ziffren’s in the 1988 strike: deal closer. The small handful of senior industry attorneys who command gravitas in the thorniest negotiations are the sober statesmen of the business, the detached insiders who, even though they advocate fiercely for clients, have dealt fairly with CEOs like Chernin and Iger on enough deals to have earned their respect.

When the call came from the WGA, Wertheimer had already sacrificed much of his holiday season negotiating an interim agreement allowing client David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants company to produce fresh episodes of his talk show. He was eager to sit down with both sides, get beyond the personalities involved and help get a deal done before the strike wiped out the TV season and the Oscars.

“Everyone in the room wanted to make a deal, but we needed to put the past behind us and focus on solutions that the membership would ultimately approve,” Wertheimer says.

Those compromises took root at two key meetings. The first, a casual, seven-person lunch at Wertheimer’s Brentwood house after his wife agreed to move her book club, produced a deal for WGA jurisdiction over Internet shows. At a second powwow at the Luxe Hotel in Bel Air, the parties agreed for the first time on a royalty structure for digital delivery, and Wertheimer advised his clients to take the deal while it was still on the table.

Of course, Wertheimer credits the leadership on both sides for reaching a deal. The leaders should credit Wertheimer as well.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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