The Big Picture
Jill Smith is the hip, sardonic attorney making deals for Lego, Rube Goldberg and Godzilla
Published in 2021 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
on January 21, 2021
Updated on January 22, 2021
On a clear day you can see all the way to Catalina Island from Jill Smith’s 17th-floor window at Kleinberg Lange Cuddy & Carlo in Westwood. But this isn’t a clear day. It’s mid-September 2020, the wildfires are burning to the east, and the midday sky is yellow and murky.
Smith’s practice area, entertainment law, is also murky. The COVID-19 pandemic caused Hollywood to hit the pause button in the spring, and even with productions starting again in the fall, nobody quite knows what the new normal will look like.
“We had clients filming movies that were shut down, so there are logistics involved with that,” Smith says. “And now, six months later, we have clients going back to filming movies and TV shows. All of these shutdowns and restarts, they all cost more money. And then there comes the essential question: Who is bearing the cost?”
Smith has practiced entertainment law for 34 years, first at Greenberg Glusker, then at a firm she founded in June 2003 with Gary Barkin. She’s been in-house counsel at Jim Henson Pictures and Dustin Hoffman’s Punch Productions.
“Jill genuinely loves her clients but is willing to both challenge their assumptions and reinvent how deals can be made,” says Ann Blanchard, an agent at CAA’s television department. “She sees details others don’t see in order to find more revenue.”
Though in the same industry, Blanchard and Smith got to know each other through their kids. “I first met her at a gathering at a park,” Blanchard recalls. “She had a hip quality—‘Who’s that gal?’ She had a sardonic edge to her humor and a cool look. I liked her vibe.”
When screenwriter Michael Finch (Predators, American Assassin) was shopping for a lawyer to represent him on contract bargaining sessions, he met a lot of self-styled sharks. “But it looked like a show,” he says. “They were projecting because they thought that’s what I wanted.” Smith was different. “She’s very confident, understanding the nuance of the law, but she also has a calm, human demeanor. If I get wound up and angry, she can step in and calm the negotiation down. Jill can find a way to get me what I want without getting into the fight I don’t want to have.”
It’s fitting that Smith’s interest in the law began with television.
Blame Tony Petrocelli, the laid-back, pickup-truck driving, small-town defense attorney played by Barry Newman on the character’s eponymous show for two seasons on NBC in the mid-1970s. “I loved that show,” she says with a smile. “His clients were always innocent, and he got everyone off.” In college she took a course in American jurisprudence, and to her shock, she says, “it turned out Petrocelli maybe wasn’t so accurate on how criminal justice worked.”
Smith was born in Brooklyn, and her family moved to Livingston, New Jersey, when she was 7. Her father was an estimator for a printing company, and mom was a secretary for a society bandleader, then a travel agent. High school classmates included future governor Chris Christie and mystery author Harlan Coben. The big city loomed even then. There were times when high school was ditched for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, or evenings at home for concerts at Madison Square Garden.
As an undergrad, she went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and graduated with a double major in three years. Afterwards, she had an epiphany: She wanted to better manage her workload. Asked how that’s going, she deadpans, “Well, I have my moments.”
Her path to entertainment law was random, she says. After her second year of law school at the University of Pennsylvania, she landed a summer job at a law firm with some internal dissent. Between the time she interviewed and started, roughly 15 attorneys had left. She was told to go to Greenberg Glusker, the likely landing spot, but two days after she arrived the deal fell through. “So I was like, ‘Where do I go tomorrow?’ They said, ‘You might as well stay here,’” she remembers. She did, for three weeks, then got a job offer after she graduated. It was during those three weeks that she first got a taste of entertainment law, and decided she liked it.
“Oh, it’s very superficial, I think,” she says when asked for her reasons. “It’s because you can feel like you are associated with something visual.” A colleague once explained that working on a movie was almost like constructing a building. When you’re done, she says, “you can see it, and that’s kind of cool.”
Starting at Greenberg Glusker on Oct. 20, 1986, Smith learned from legendary Hollywood entertainment lawyer Bert Fields, who has represented James Cameron, Warren Beatty and DreamWorks. She remembers fidgeting outside Fields’ office one day, getting up the nerve to ask him about a client. “He just possessed this intellect and reputation that could be intimidating,” she says. “He actually had a pretty hands-off approach when it came to training. I worked with him a fair amount and he’d kind of leave you to it, though he was always available for my inevitable questions.”
And for all her nerves going in, she would generally come out feeling reassured. “Bert didn’t nitpick,” she says. “He focused on the big picture and the critical issues. It was quite encouraging, albeit subtly, in those first years, to walk out of his office with a draft of something I had prepared with minimal notes and changes. I have tried to keep that in mind when I’ve worked with junior attorneys.”
She went on to become in-house counsel at Jim Henson Pictures in the mid-1990s. It was a lively time; Henson had signed a lucrative deal with Sony and she had a front-row seat on projects growing from idea to fruition. For the 1997 Rene Russo film Buddy, for example, she did everything from fielding initial offers to talent to crafting the agreements with actors, producers and the Jim Henson Creature Shop. At the last minute, a location-shoot dispute erupted. “But at the end of the day it all came together,” she says. (Except with the critics, whose reviews were scathing, and at the box office, where the film died. “It was disappointing,” Smith admits.)
From there, Smith moved to Dustin Hoffman’s Punch Productions. During the initial interview, either Dustin or his wife, Lisa—Smith can’t recall which—asked a clarifying question: “Do you do windows and floors?” Reading the room, Smith replied, “I’ll do anything I can if I have time to do it and feel competent in doing it. But I’ll be first to say if I don’t feel like someone with expertise in that area.”
If they were looking for a litigator, she told them, there were more experienced choices. “But the benefit with me,” she continued, “is I’m also more of a businessperson. I’m not just a lawyer. I can help with the oversight and keeping things on track and being, in effect, another executive.”
By the time she was back in private practice, Smith’s in-house experience had given her a fuller view of the creative process.
Legal proceedings have sometimes been compared to a Rube Goldberg machine—a comically complicated set of processes established to do a simple task. Smith knows this better than most since one of her clients is the estate of Rube Goldberg, which she has represented on book projects, licensing deals and a museum exhibition of his drawings. “I get the sense that he was a brilliant man with a visual gift and a sharp, sarcastic wit.”
And if you think handling such an estate might be complicated, with many intellectual property permutations, imagine representing the Danish toymaker Lego—IP that can be built into other IP, then expanded into other platforms—as well as Toho, the Japanese production company that owns the rights to everyone’s favorite irradiated creature, Godzilla.
“I am definitely still a general practitioner—I work with actors, directors, writers, producers,” Smith says. “But for whatever reason, I feel like in the last few years there have been more intellectual property deals, and they are different.”
This summer provided a vivid illustration. Before Warner Bros. released The Lego Movie in 2014, many people in Hollywood chuckled at the idea of a feature film built around snap-together plastic pieces; then it grossed a half-billion dollars at the box office, was nominated for an Academy Award for best original song (“Everything Is Awesome”), and garnered three sequels. In 2019, the deal expired, so Smith fielded Lego suitors before signing a five-year development, production and distribution deal with Universal Pictures.
“Something like Lego, it’s a trademark and a concept,” says Smith. “It’s different than when you represent an author with a book featuring a fleshed-out story, characters, scenes, events, and adapting that into a movie. You can picture that. But when somebody says, ‘We want to do a movie using these trademarks,’ what does that look like? Luckily it’s creative people who figure that stuff out and not me.”
For her, the creativity is in the dealmaking. “You have to be able to think about things in an expansive way,” she says. “You certainly have to think about your client’s needs. But my goal is always to make a deal, not kill a deal, and that means thinking about what does the other side want to get out of a deal? What are they trying to do?”
That’s a question she asks in non-dealmaking situations, too. On a recent morning, Smith took time to talk with a friend’s daughter, who was seeking advice about law school and entertainment law. In such conversations, Smith asks what they want from the law and what they hope to gain. She points out that entertainment law can be more geographically limiting than other practice areas. You can be a corporate attorney anywhere, but entertainment law is an uphill battle outside of LA and New York.
“It’s not an easy area to get into,” she adds, but “at the end of the day, entertainment is very similar to any other kind of transactional work. If you’re reading a real estate agreement, you’re reading it for the same purpose as you’re reading an entertainment agreement: to protect your client.”
Being a single mother has added several levels of complexity to Smith’s time management skills. “After not meeting the right guy, I chose to have a child on my own,” she says. “The first one came out well, so I went for the second. And then all hell broke loose.”
As they grew, she made sure every job she took had the flexibility she needed, and she never missed an important sporting event or school meeting. Her son, Tyler, is now 22, and Smith just watched her 18-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, leave for college in the middle of a pandemic. “She’s a freshman at UMass Amherst, which was the last school we were scheduled to visit,” Smith says. “We never saw it—and she still hasn’t seen it. She went to live with her roommate for six weeks before coming back to LA to finish out the semester.”
The specter of COVID-19 is as present as ever when Smith arrives at work. But, she adds, “I feel like everyone—studios, production companies, guilds and talent—is trying to make things work.”
As for what Smith wants in the years ahead?
“I feel pretty fortunate that I really like most of my clients,” she says after a long pause. “So the longer-term goal is to not have any clients I don’t really enjoy working with. And I’m kind of getting there.”