Keeping the Vision
Former TV producer Laverne Berry is now the star of a voting rights documentary
Published in 2019 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine on October 2, 2019
Growing up, Laverne Berry was so enthralled with television that she wrote a one-and-a-half page Perry Mason script in crayon and begged her parents for piano lessons because The Liberace Show was having a moment.
That passion never went away. After she got her B.A. at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, Berry pursued a graduate degree in radio, television and film at Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. Then she went to work at RKO General Television’s local New York affiliate, WOR.
“That was my first work as a production coordinator,” she says. “I liked the idea of working in a collaborative way with a bunch of people, and film and television is exactly that. Everybody knows what they’re doing and has their roles, and the producer is the person in the room who keeps the vision.”
After several years, she landed at WNET as a producer who focused on the development, production and licensing of television programs and ancillary projects. Later, as director of distribution, she also dipped her toe into the transactional side of things.
Then the deals started changing.
“In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the way television was made is that someone had an idea and things were mostly made in-house or made with a very close group of people that were outside, and all the money came from one place,” she says. “But as the ’80s evolved, deals became more complicated—video and foreign distribution was growing—and there were more co-producers, and some of them were foreign and looking at how to make all those pieces work. So I thought law school might be helpful.
“Whether it was figuring out tax credits in a different country or making sure co-producers work together in a reasonable way, I saw the law degree as an asset,” she says. “I surely never thought that I was going to have a solo practice where I catered to media makers. I figured maybe someday I might end up in-house with a media company, if anything.”
Close. She went in-house at A&E Television Networks, working on scripted and documentary programs. She was production counsel for the detective period drama A Nero Wolfe Mystery starring Timothy Hutton, as well as for musical specials with legends like Diana Ross and Billy Joel. But before long, her love of narrative truth telling in documentary filmmaking nudged her toward a solo shop where she could cater directly to that clientele.
“This is not the most lucrative area of law,” she says with a laugh. “Documentary filmmakers never have a lot of money. Some say, ‘Hi. I have all these things that I want to use under a theory of fair use.’ And really, what they’re saying is, ‘Hi, I don’t have any money to pay for these things.’ And I get to work it out. Because I have this production background, I’ve done this. I can say, ‘Look. Let’s think a little bit about what you’re trying to do. Would it work if you interview this particular scholar, and he or she was able to set up the criticism that might actually get you to the point where you could claim fair use?”
Even though she’s seen it all, predicting the future is still a hit-or-miss prospect.
In 1999, a business lunch Berry was having with a fellow lawyer was cut short because her lunch date had to scurry off to another meeting. “She says, ‘We’re doing this preliminary negotiation on what kinds of royalties we’re going to give performers when television shows are broadcast on people’s phones,’” Berry recalls. “And we both pause, stare at each other for a few seconds and burst out laughing. It was such a ridiculous statement!”
When reality TV got hot in the early 2000s, a friend who’d been hired as a supervising producer on a reality show wanted Berry to review his contract. She laughs, remembering what she told him: Looks good, but are you sure about this project? Five gay guys who go around and do makeovers? The next year, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy won an Emmy. Last year, Netflix rebooted the franchise.
“You just never know what’s going to be next,” she says. “I’ve recently started to arbitrate agreements for internet influencers: How are they going to get paid? And for the business, what information do you have to put out there if someone is getting paid to be an influencer? And who would know that one of the most important clauses in a virtual reality agreement is liability, because what happens when you think you’re walking along a path in your VR screen, and you’re actually stepping off a sidewalk?”
The breakneck speed of the industry keeps her engaged. But staying current on the thousands of shows streaming on the dozens of prominent platforms in the U.S. alone? “It’s just not possible,” she says.
READY FOR HER CLOSE-UP
Berry has spent decades volunteering in the civil space—most notably, on voter protection. “It’s something I’ve always been passionate about,” she says.
Recently, her career and advocacy intersected.
“I have a client who I was working with on another project, a documentary film,” Berry says. “We were at a rough-cut screening and tasks were mounting: ‘Laverne, you have to do the clearance on that music.’ And we shot something at a sports stadium, and so I was negotiating with the stadium for rights there. I said, ‘OK, we need to lock all this down, because I’m leaving to do my voter protection work. If you try to call me while I’m away, I’m not going to answer. I’m warning you now.’”
After rounding up a group of fellow attorneys, she headed to North Carolina, or what she calls “the poster child for voter suppression in 2016, particularly for the African American communities there.”
A few days later, her client called. “‘Let me come film you,’ she said. I said, ‘Nope, nope, nope,’” Berry says. “I thought it’d be a hindrance to the work. There were 66 pages—of election law that year in the state. There were endless issues: same-day voting problems, gerrymandering, bad-faith practices at the polls.” But her filmmaker client insisted. Berry relented and agreed to a 10-minute civil action short. Those 10 minutes turned into a 76-minute documentary, Capturing the Flag.
“Even though it’s a film about 2016, we think of it as a film that will be used through the elections in 2019 and into 2020,” Berry says. “Everybody thinks that they understand what voter suppression really is like. But they don’t actually know how it happens. Often, it’s death by a thousand cuts.”
The film was a deeply moving experience for Berry.
“I was walking across 52nd Street and I heard somebody say, ‘That’s Laverne.’” She turned, expecting to see a friend; but it was a young woman she didn’t know. “She said, ‘I saw your film at a festival. … I went home and I talked to my family about it, and made sure that all of them voted in the midterm.’ … And then she said, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ I’ll never forget that moment.”