The Animated Lawyer

Warner Bros.’ John Schulman shares an office with Yakko, Wakko and Dot

Published in Corporate Counsel Edition® - 2008 magazine

By Anthony Head on April 1, 2008


Job security at the major Hollywood studios has always been a shaky thing. So it is a small miracle, of sorts, that while studio presidents, CEOs and creative wonders have come and gone, in the last few decades, John Schulman has stayed where he is—as the executive vice president and general counsel of Warner Bros. Studios.

For many of today’s Hollywood stars, 1984 is quite literally a lifetime away. Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears were 3 years old then, and Lindsay Lohan hadn’t even been born. That year also saw the directorial debut of several unknowns, including two brothers from Minnesota and their movie Blood Simple, and a Hollywood prince, Rob Reiner, with his out-of-left-field first film, This Is Spinal Tap. It would be another decade until the first movie was released in DVD format, destined to become the new technological standard. And it was in 1984 that John Schulman took his position as general counsel of Warner Bros.

The Hollywood trades refer to him as the “dean of entertainment lawyers.” He has distinguished himself during a period that includes the most explosive era of technological changes in the entertainment industry—and a lot of new law to keep pace with it.

For example, consider what he worked on earlier in the day. “There are several conflicting claims to copyright retransmission money per the compulsory license the U.S. government passed 30 years ago,” he says. “I was dealing with some of those conflicts. But each project has its own fabric, texture, personalities and issues.” Regardless of what those conflicts may be, Schulman clearly relishes his job. “I enjoy puzzle solving. I look at many legal matters as trying to solve a puzzle,” he says. “I try to get a conclusion that makes sense. I try to explain to the other side where I’m coming from—try to get a win-win when I can.”

As complicated as the individual matters are in Schulman’s post, the job can largely be summed up in one word: rights. Schulman keeps track of who controls the rights to creative content and, consequently, who profits from them. This is an intricate process because of the current technological sea change, as movies move beyond film to the digital world, and out of theaters and into other media. “This is very different than ever before,” Schulman says. “We can’t just do the same things we used to. We all have to adapt and we’re all going through the growing pains of doing it.”

Part of his job—the part about making sure everyone gets their fair cut—isn’t so easy in Hollywood. Have you ever stayed for the credits at the end of a movie? Lots of people, lots of guilds, lots of gaffers and best boys, lots of unions. So Schulman runs a department of about 150 lawyers, and uses them for the legal issues surrounding financing, production and distribution of programming for theater, television, home video and the Internet all over the world.

He’s an old-school generalist, a team captain. He says he’s got somebody who does intellectual property analysis better than he does; somebody who heads up employment law for him; one person who does marketing law, and so on. Schulman has assembled such a team for a reason common to all great leaders: “I try not to do anything. My goal is to go to the beach every day, all day long,” says Schulman. “In that, I have been singularly unsuccessful.”

Going to the beach is simply out of the question, especially with the emergence over the past quarter-century of cable networks, franchises and niche networks. “If someone who’s been in outer space for the past 25 or 30 years came back and saw all the changes, his head would be spinning,” says Schulman. However, if that someone had previously worked in Warner Bros.’ legal department before this supposed cosmic vacation, his first question to Schulman just might be “What? We still don’t have this Superman thing figured out?”

That’s because the more things change, the more they stay the same. Even before Schulman permanently parked his car on the Warner lot, he was doing work there as a member of the Los Angeles firm Kaplan, Livingston, Goodwin, Berkowitz & Selvin. Some of his earliest work surrounded the legal wrangling of the Superman franchise.

Remembering that time, Schulman explains that producer Alexander Salkind bought from D.C. Comics the rights to make Superman movies for 25 years, and he developed some successful ones in the late ’70s and early ’80s. But Schulman says Salkind neglected to pay Richard Donner (director), Mario Puzo (writer), Marlon Brando, a European bank and a theater chain from which he borrowed money. They all sued Salkind and Warner Bros. as the potholder, the one with money to distribute.

“Those lawsuits lasted two or three years and took me to Western Europe, New York, Mexico. We had to resolve all of them to make some sense. I felt like I was going to school as much as when I was taking English classes [as an undergrad at Yale] in New Haven,” says Schulman.

Over the course of his career, legal issues have come and gone, changed and stayed the same, especially with the Man of Steel. Among these ongoing cases, there was the well-publicized suit in October 2004 filed against Warner Bros. by the family of Jerry Siegel, the co-originator of the comic book series who sought a share of profits from the Superman copyright; and in April 2006, a judge denied a request by Warner to issue a ruling that its WB network television show Smallville does not infringe on the copyrights held on the Superboy character. Schulman and Warner Bros. said they disagreed with the decision; summary judgments are pending in trial court.

“It’s such a valuable property, there will always be issues to resolve,” he says calmly. There are many other battles, but one gets the sense that Schulman does not take these battles personally, though he’s personally involved. Not many lawsuits in Hollywood ever get to court, and if they do, they rarely go the distance. While filing lawsuits is certainly part of doing business in Tinseltown, as Schulman explains, it’s in everyone’s interest to try to come to some understanding early in the process that is—and it’s evident this is important to Schulman—equitable.

“In the 24 years that I’ve been here, and the six or seven years I was an outside lawyer, Bob Daly and Barry Meyer have been the two heads of the studio,” he says. “From them and from others there has emanated an environment that’s humane and that cares for people. The mandate I’ve had from my bosses is: Do it right and be fair.”

Being in such close proximity to Hollywood’s power players means dreams of stardom for some people. But apparently not for Schulman, 61, who says he has never penned a screenplay to pitch the big boss. He has no idea who would play him in “The John Schulman Story.” He does, however, have a producer’s credit for the movie Chuck Jones: Extremes and In-Betweens, A Life in Animation. “It was for a documentary of Chuck Jones, the illustrator of such animated icons as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck,” Schulman says. “I helped assemble material for the project. I was more of a licensor—a suggestor—than I was a creator or decision maker. I was a contributor to pay homage to a great creator.”

One day in 1993, the legal staff returned to the building after it underwent maintenance and painting. Jones wandered into Schulman’s office and saw that the furniture was all in the middle of the room and the walls were pristine. Not being able to refuse the lure of a blank canvas, he drew a smirking Wile E. Coyote, right on the wall.

Maybe that’s why Schulman’s such an affable guy. He spends his days with cartoon characters literally looking over his shoulder. Jones brought more animators in to doodle on the walls, and other artists heard about the original art project and wanted to contribute. So over there is that famous coyote saying, “Nice digs, John.” And in that corner are Batman, Robin and the Joker. Playing around by the windows are Yakko, Wakko and Dot, better known as the Animaniacs, laughing and keeping Schulman honest in his work.

Though he downplays his Hollywood aspirations, maybe Schulman is actually ready to branch out. “I’ve made comments creatively on one movie in 24 years. It’s a poker movie. [President and COO of Warner Bros. Entertainment] Alan Horn knows I like to play poker, so he asked for my comments on the poker part of it.” The movie, Lucky You, starring Eric Bana, Drew Barrymore and Robert Duvall, was released last spring. “I liked it, because of the subject matter, but if he’d sent me a script about migrant Okies, or one about an American who gives up his girlfriend while living abroad during World War I, I wouldn’t know squat about that.”

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