A Screenwriter Hits Paydirt
Danny Kuchuck sells his screenplay and finds a new best friend — lawyer Jeff Frankel
Published in 2004 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
on January 26, 2004
Updated on July 31, 2015
I’m a screenwriter and I’ve discovered that my lawyer, not my agent or my manager or my dog, is man’s best friend.
In between some of the better jobs I’ve had, I’ve pitched ideas to drunks, beggars and thieves and worked for them all. I once wrote a script for a guy who was in a 1970s German techno-dance band until he inherited a Swiss watch factory and moved to Malibu to make movies. Another shady producer handed me a check as I handed over a final draft. He tried to pull the check back as I put the script in his hand. We had a tug-of-war right there over the cubicles in his office.
When my screenwriting partner and I recently entered into negotiations with a major Hollywood studio, it was my first journey into the mythic land of “studio deals.” I had a close relationship with my personal manager and a new relationship with my agent, but it was my lawyer, Jeff Frankel, who made sense of it all for me. This wasn’t the first time. A few years ago my partner and I adapted a novel for a U.K.-based studio, and the entire complicated trans-Atlantic negotiation was crafted by the same lawyer. Managers and agents may find an artist a job, but it’s often the entertainment lawyer who moves it from discussions and promises to reality.
In following their client’s endeavors, entertainment lawyers often have unusual terrain to navigate. Just like a good baseball scout will hunt down a prospect in high school and nurture him for years, an entertainment lawyer has a stable of clients, some of whom have found him and some he has found himself. Some are vets, some are rookies. Of the rookies, needless to say, not all will become stars. Successful entertainment lawyers know how to spot talented rookies. And here is one road that separates entertainment lawyers from the rest of his kind. To make sound judgments on which rookies to sign, an entertainment lawyer must cross over and bridge the gap between the “industry” side and the “creative” side.
Obviously, since he signed me, Jeff Frankel, my lawyer, has an extremely discerning taste in clients, and can spot genuine talent with ease. Since he doesn’t charge an hourly rate, I took advantage of him recently and stopped by his office in Beverly Hills to talk about this article. I talked with him about being a lawyer in a business that sometimes seems to have no rules.
Frankel is a big, gregarious guy in his mid-30s. His office is high-tech chic with lots of natural light. The place has a creative openness; it could be a modernist architecture firm or a hip commercial ad agency.
Frankel is a New York City native who graduated from Cornell and got a law degree from UCLA. During law school, Jeff received a taste of his potential future, and it was bleak: “I did an internship at the SEC, the enforcement division,” he recalls. “While it was interesting, I will tell you this: it was very corporate, very formal, very regimented, and I knew it wasn’t for me.”
It was during his time as a summer associate at Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp (MS&K) that he discovered his true vocation.
“They had me work on all sorts of things at the firm, and I happened to meet the guys who worked in the entertainment department,” he says. “It wasn’t the work that was going on in that department that made me want to do it; it was the personalities of these guys that did it. There were a lot of young people and we clicked, so when they needed another entertainment lawyer, I was picked.”
Immediately out of law school, Frankel was hired by MS&K and soon he was on that unique trail that straddles corporate law and the business of entertainment. It was (and is) a path not every lawyer understands.
“My first year out of law school” he recalls, “I was living with a friend of mine from Cornell who had graduated from Harvard Law School. We shared a phone and an answering machine. It was my first year as a lawyer and I was representing some actors and I would get phone calls at midnight telling me messages like ‘this first-class section doesn’t have sleeper seats.’
“And my friend was a bankruptcy lawyer,” he continues, “at probably the most prestigious bankruptcy firm in L.A. He loved doing bankruptcy law, preparing pleadings, arguing about creditors and debtors situations and going down to court.
“And he couldn’t fathom why I even had to answer the call about sleeper seats — but I loved it. I couldn’t fathom doing a bankruptcy case.”
Now a partner at Colden, McKuin and Frankel, Frankel has learned that sleeper seats and contract negotiations go hand in hand in entertainment law.
“People that are creative don’t think like an accountant or a business manager,” he says. “That’s why they have accountants and business managers. And because you may not be talking to someone who thinks the way you do, you have to figure out how to bridge the gap between the way they’re thinking and the result that they’re going to want.
“This can get you into some really unique ancillary areas. Some of the stuff I do, it gets beyond lawyering. Like last year I planned a trip for a client who wanted to do an appearance in Russia. So I structured the deal, I booked the deal, I escrowed the money, and I had to be very demanding because when you bring a client over to a country like that, everything has to be first class. If it’s not, the client’s not going to understand that you tried and didn’t get it. It turned out to be great, but there was a lot of pressure in it. It was a cool gig, as far as lawyering gigs go.”
Another area where Frankel’s job differs from that of many lawyers is the nature of the client-lawyer relationship. “I represent people I care about,” he says.“Depending on the client or the situation, you can get called to task on weird stuff — or other personal legal matters that are unrelated to the entertainment business. I’ve heard it all and I’ve seen it all. I always carry around in my wallet a criminal lawyer’s card and a bail bondsman’s card — it might be the middle of the night when you get that call and you won’t be in your office.
“My job is kind of a gray area between what a lawyer does and a personal manager does. I got a call a half an hour ago from a client who wanted to make sure their hairdresser was on the set for the last few days of the movie. I had negotiated the deal that the studio would pay for this hairdresser, but as a lawyer I’m typically not involved in the logistics of making sure the hairdresser is called and told where to show up.”
The hairdresser made it to the set. Frankel knows these aren’t typical corporate clients he has.
“I represent writers, directors, actors — they’re artists, you know? — and this is how they make a living. And I’m the guy that has to convey to them the good news: ‘Hey, you got an extra 50 grand, or you got a job you didn’t expect, ‘Hey, look — they’re making your movie and you’re getting a credit bonus, and you didn’t think you’d ever see it.’ I’m also the guy who has to convey the bad news: ‘Hey, your script got tied up with a bankruptcy. You’ll probably never see it again,’ or ‘The rights fell through to a project you worked three months on; it was all worthless.’”
But when it all comes together, it can be a beautiful thing.
“I represent Antwone Fisher, and to me that’s an example of the most satisfying thing I’ve done in my career,” Frankel says. “He set the bar pretty high. He came to me after having been screwed over most of his life and there’s just no way I was going to let him down.And representing him, it’s not just doing a book and a film deal, it’s talking to him about his life, easing his pain wherever I can, relating to his experiences. And it’s dealing with things outside the legal world.
“You can’t represent talent if they don’t trust you — a lot of these people have had some very bad experiences out in the entertainment world — whether it be someone stealing an idea or someone making a promise that they didn’t keep.
“With all the kookiness that may go on, you get a real sense of satisfaction when you represent an individual whose life is changed by a deal you make.”