Carole Handler likes to say she has three children. One daughter, Lani, is following her footsteps into law school. Her other daughter, Alisa, is a professor of literature who recently got married in the ultimate land of the romance language, Paris. She speaks about all of her children with deep affection, but it’s obvious that the third child, Peter, is the black sheep. He’s the one who often kept her up until three in the morning, pondering how to handle the unending trouble he was in.
Her third “child” is Spider-Man.
If a movie were going to be made about how Spider-Man became one of the most successful films of all time, Handler would be a key character. In the movie about the movie, she would be played by either Meryl Streep or Glenn Close, so the audience would instantly know she was smart and tough but with a sense of humor and fairness. And from Marvel Comics’ viewpoint, Handler would definitely be the film’s heroine.
Flash back — as they say in Hollywood — to 1985, when producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus purchased the film rights to Spider-Man from Marvel for $225,000. The subsequent events are a tangled web indeed. To raise funds, Golan sold video rights to Sony and TV rights to Viacom. Carolco then bought the movie rights from Golan and hired Titanic’s James Cameron to direct. But Carolco went belly-up and MGM bought the rights to the project. Figuring out who owned what rights at this point required Spidey-sense.
To make matters even more complicated, Marvel Comics filed for Chapter 11 in 1998. The judge overseeing the bankruptcy had read some of Handler’s briefs and was impressed enough to hire her to run the case. She was going over the thick mound of papers for “the millionth time” when something odd struck her. Golan had never filed the original licensing of the character in the U.S. Copyright Office. Under normal circumstances that wouldn’t matter. However, because Marvel was in bankruptcy, the law allowed it to reclaim the license because of this oversight. Marvel then sold the rights to Sony for $10 million and part of the gross, kicking the movie out of development hell and making film history.
“When I first realized that the license had never been registered, I thought it couldn’t be right,” Handler says. “Everyone I told said I had to be crazy. But after the third phone call, I knew I was correct.” That discovery, on the surface, might seem a matter of mere happenstance. But the “lucky break” was an outgrowth of the kind of dedication Handler put into the case, staying in the office until the wee hours of the morning as she conjured new ideas and tactics for her briefs. “I couldn’t stop thinking about the case,” she said.
Handler, who is now a partner at Thelen Reid & Priest, spends some of her hectic schedule protecting the interests of Marvel against Internet interlopers who want to use its famous characters in video games and other commercial ventures. “These people see what they’re doing as paying homage to the characters,” Handler says. “They want to pay homage, but not license fees.”
A woman who read Proust in one gulp is well suited to the mental gymnastics of intellectual property rights, where no case is ever cut and dried. Her father was the renowned attorney Milton Handler, who was FDR’s chief adviser on antitrust matters and served as the first general counsel of the National Labor Board. “My father inspired me because he made it seem like lawyers could be servants to society,” Handler says.
She rebelled at first against the notion of going into the family business. She received a degree in urban planning from the University of Pennsylvania and worked in that profession until she had her first daughter. She decided she needed a larger intellectual challenge and went to law school at the University of Pennsylvania.
She fell into entertainment law by chance when she joined a Philadelphia firm that represented movie theater studios, and later served as in-house counsel for MGM. Though she loves films, she has trouble seeing herself by the sobriquet of “Hollywood Handler” that was once put on her. Unlike many lawyers, Handler doesn’t make flamboyant rantings to the press. Her public contact carries the feeling of Philadelphia gentility. “That slowed my career for a while because I wasn’t considered tough enough,” she says.
Still, she revels in the theatrics of the courtroom, just as she loves lecturing to her students at USC about antitrust law. One of her greatest triumphs, she says, came in one of the many pro bono cases she handles, this one involving an elderly Polish woman who hid Jews from the Gestapo. She was trying to get back the film rights to her story after she licensed them away.
“There was a young Latino man on the jury who had never heard of the Holocaust,” Handler recalls. “By the time I gave the summation, he kept vigorously nodding his head in agreement. I knew at that moment that he got it, and he saw that what he had suffered in his life was part of a greater pattern of suffering, and he could get outside himself and do something important for someone else.”
Her socially conscious “son,” Spidey, would be proud.