“You gotta check this out,” James O’Brien III says, excitedly offering a CD of a rising funk/hip-hop combo, Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band, whom O’Brien represents, to a visitor in his spacious Raleigh office. Not surprisingly, the Booty Band won the “Best Client Name” award at O’Brien’s firm, Poyner & Spruill. The firm was once home to former Governor James B. Hunt Jr., whose overtures to Hollywood in the early 1980s helped build North Carolina into a movie-making mecca, consistently ranking just behind California and New York in film production. The state’s music scene is equally rich, with everything from bluegrass to alt rock. With posters from a number of North Carolina independent films such as Roadkill on the walls and a deep database of producers, writers and actors, O’Brien is expanding on Hunt’s work as one of the few attorneys in the state with an established practice in entertainment law.
“I’m a fan first,” the unabashed Deadhead declares. He admits that a post-UC-Berkeley law school stint in the cutthroat L.A. music business left a bad taste in his mouth. “The worst combination of competition, ego and poor business ethics,” he remembers. “[It] drained good people by questionable tactics and backstabbing.”
At the same time, O’Brien knows it’s show business. “Stories sell, but the right legal advice helps,” O’Brien says, casually dressed in a flowered short-sleeved shirt on this late-summer Friday. “Almost all independent filmmakers understand that the difference between dream and reality is financing. Most local filmmakers also know that many wealthy people live throughout North Carolina. The fundamental problem facing most filmmakers in North Carolina, however, is figuring out how to get the people with money to invest in their films. Understanding what these potential investors want, and explaining how they get it, is the key to tapping into their resources.”
This is where O’Brien comes in, building the state’s infrastructure of actors, technicians and writers, and attracting venture capitalists. O’Brien excitedly speaks of the previous night’s dinner with a group from L.A., Florida and North Carolina putting together a massive 15-picture deal. O’Brien points to the film Bandwagon (1996), made back in the day when Chapel Hill was the “next Seattle.” While that didn’t exactly work out (and wasn’t really the point), Bandwagon more than doubled the investment of its financial supporters in less than two years when the film was sold after a screening at the Sundance Film Festival. And that’s exactly the point.
O’Brien happily admits he “can’t sing and dance” and doesn’t have a Grishamesque potboiler saved on the hard drive. “To me, the creativity comes in putting together projects,” he says. “It’s fun to find a script and think about how to find the financing to get it made.”