The Survivor

You think lasting a few weeks on an island is tough? Corporate counsel John Schulman has been with Warner Bros. for two decades, and counting

Published in 2007 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine

By Anthony Head on January 25, 2007

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 the 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.
Further, there’s little chance that Schulman is leaving Warner Bros. anytime soon. The Hollywood trades refer to him as the “dean of entertainment lawyers” (a title he attributes more to length of service than anything else—but that’s just typical humble Schulman). He has certainly 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 the movies move beyond film to the digital world, and out of theaters and into other media. Companies like Warner Bros. must stay on top of where the money ends up and who gave permission for what to go where. Whether the product was made for movie theaters, television or video, the maximizing of rights takes place much faster and in more media than ever. “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 125 lawyers, and uses every one of 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, a general. He says he’s got somebody who does electric-property analysis better than he does; somebody who heads up employment law for him; one person who does marketing law, and so on. Schulman’s 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.”
A Great Lawyer; A Bad Tan
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 and returned now, 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 wranglings of the Superman franchise.
Remembering that time, Schulman explains that Alexander Salkind bought from D.C. Comics the rights to make Superman movies for 25 years and he produced 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 pot-holder, the one with money to distribute.
“Those lawsuits lasted two or three years and went 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. As that all took form, in the formal proceedings and informal proceedings, the interplay among everyone was quite instructional,” 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 was seeking a share of profits from the Superman copyright; and as recently as 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 disagree with the decision and will appeal.
“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, hough 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 Tinsel Town, 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 paramount with Schulman—equitable.
“In the 22 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.”
Never Ignore the Writing on the Walls
Being in such close proximity of Hollywood’s power players means dreams of stardom for some people. But apparently not for Schulman, 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—more than I was a creator or decision maker. I was a contributor to pay homage to a great creator.”
He says this all came about because when something doesn’t fit anywhere else at Warner Bros., it seems to always come down to him. He is, in his own words, “the company’s outbox.” For a while, when Warner Bros. stopped making a lot of cartoons and animated movies, Chuck Jones and other animators didn’t fit in so neatly. “So Chuck became my bailiwick, and we became friends,” he says. “In fact the last contract we did with Chuck had a paragraph that read something like ‘The rest of the paragraphs in here will be deemed Warner’s normal legal stuff.’ By then we had both had enough contracts and it was fine.”
One day in 1993, the legal staff was returning to the building, which had undergone 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 22 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, is scheduled for release in March. “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 a World War, I wouldn’t know squat about that.”

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