Ready for Her Close-Up
Sally Mattison has gone from working behind the camera for Hollywood legend Roger Corman to brokering deals for entertainers
Published in 2006 Pennsylvania Rising Stars magazine
on November 27, 2006
Updated on October 10, 2016
Directorial credit for Slumber Party Massacre 3 is not a typical résumé item for a lawyer. But then, Priscilla (Sally) Mattison is not a typical lawyer.
Given her background as a honcho in the film industry, you might expect Mattison to rock a Hollywood vibe. But she’s decidedly low-key. Dressed for a sweltering July day in a loose-fitting blue-and-white sundress and sandals, the 46-year-old Mattison is more interested in getting attention for her clients — musicians, writers, producers, songwriters and filmmakers — than for herself. She represents them in the practice she shares with her husband, Bernard Resnick, whose eponymous Bala Cynwyd firm she joined in 2000, making it a two-attorney operation.
Sitting behind her desk, facing one wall filled with an eclectic collection of degrees and another wall covered with clients’ gold and platinum records, Mattison explains that she never thought she’d end up here.
“When I was in college,” she says, “there were people I knew who wanted to go off and be investment bankers or lawyers. I wasn’t interested in that at all.”
Mattison went to Yale thinking she would study theater. She had always been around the arts: She began playing piano at age 7 and composing music at 10. At Harriton High School in Rosemont, just outside of Philadelphia, her choir performed one of her compositions. She also edited the school’s literary magazine, won a state poetry prize and directed school plays. “My crowning glory was Godspell,” she says.
But once she got to college, she changed her focus. “I just decided that theater was too artsy for the real world,” she says. “I’ve always been cursed with a very strong practical streak.” She majored in economics and political science.
Still, within that practical course of study, Mattison remained in touch with her inner artist. She studied theater and film during a semester in London as a junior and interned at NBC News in New York while a senior. After graduation, she went to West Berlin on a Fulbright to study the city’s TV system and independent-film community. Mattison applied to a master’s program in communications after returning to the United States, but changed her mind at the last minute. She wanted to be in the action, not analyze it.
She contacted a documentary filmmaker she’d met during her internship at NBC, who recommended her to his peers. These artists ran small operations — in one case, the filmmaker, Nicholas Hondrogen, split his time between fineart photography, making films and doing loft renovations. Mattison worked in Hondrogen’s one-room office in Tribeca, making calls to raise funds and attract publicity for Eyris Productions, his film outfit, while another assistant fielded construction-related calls. The constant struggle to get films in front of audiences was frustrating, but she learned the business from the inside out. In 1986 she enrolled at the American Film Institute (AFI) in Los Angeles as a producing fellow.
While at AFI, Mattison looked for freelance script-reading work. A production company called Concorde-New Horizons let her review scripts for no pay. She jumped at the opportunity since Concorde’s founder, Roger Corman, is legendary for providing formative experiences for young directors and actors (Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppolla, Ron Howard and Jack Nicholson have all worked with him on his famously low-budget, efficient productions). After a year, Corman hired her as his assistant.
She quickly rose to head of script development, overseas productions and casting. And one day Corman walked into her office and asked, “So, you want to direct?”
Three weeks passed between that day and the first day of shooting Slumber Party Massacre 3 — three weeks to cast a movie without a script, write a script and gather a crew. The budget was $350,000. Corman wanted to take advantage of a house set that was left over from another Concorde picture. True to a Corman production, Mattison wasn’t the only newbie; Slumber Party was also the first film for the screenwriter, the director of photography and the production designer.
Once Slumber Party wrapped, Mattison went freelance, optioning a book and adapting it into a screenplay, rewriting two screenplays and trying to find more writing and directing work. “Basically, I ran around town trying to get projects made,” she says. But it was difficult to convince people that she could do a drama or a straight narrative when her sole portfolio item was a movie about a psycho insomniac with a killer electric drill.
Mattison spent four years pounding the pavement in L.A. before realizing she wanted a new challenge. Law school appealed to her practical side. She enrolled in a joint program to study environmental policy and law at Berkeley. Her first year, she reconnected with an old high school flame, Bernie Resnick, who was practicing entertainment law in Philadelphia. It got serious fast — so fast that during an early visit to San Francisco, Resnick proposed. Mattison transferred to the University of Pennsylvania Law School and they married in 1995. Five years later they began working together.
Her film background has proved to be a great benefit to their practice. Two bookshelves in her office are stacked three deep with piles of CDs from clients: Philadelphia rappers Trina and Bahamadia; classical pianist Vitalij Kuprij; Welsh rockpop band 21 Against; and multiplatinum rap producer Timbaland.
“She has such a good sense of what fits into a film,” says Resnick. “If she hears a summary of the film and what mood the filmmaker is trying to go for, she can flip through our client database and pick the artist and song in a few minutes.”
She helped place songs by Pornosonic in The Girl Next Door and Old School as well as in several TV shows; a song by Bahamadia in the film Domino; and songs by Us3 and Swami in the FIFA World Cup 2007 and 2006 video games. Mattison was also involved from the beginning in a 2005 documentary, Rock School, about the Philadelphia-based Paul Green School of Rock, that was produced and directed by 9.14 Pictures. She drafted Paul Green’s deal, reviewed the movie’s distribution deal with Newmarket, and ran down rights for “Rebel Yell,” “Black Magic Woman” and many of the other songs the rock-school kids play onscreen.
Resnick is hard-pressed to identify his wife’s biggest strength. He cites her eagle eye for contractual language, a skill she honed during the time she spent as a commercial litigator at Harkins Cunningham. He also applauds her “bedside manner,” a necessity in a practice where lawyers must nurture clients for years before careers take off. Their practice is built on patience, not on billable hours, and on being able to anticipate the ebb and flow of an artist’s career.
“Lawyers who’ve been in the field bring life experience to the dry words of a contract,” says Lloyd Zane Remick, a longtime Philadelphia entertainment lawyer who often works with the couple. “Sally’s been there. She understands both sides — the artist’s and the industry’s.”
Client Skip Denenberg certainly feels understood. “There’s some kind of symbiotic simpatico with Sally,” says the Philadelphia songwriter. “She has a way of already knowing where you want to go as an artist.” He also feels protected. Denenberg recalls one TV industry “bean counter” who wanted to stiff him on his songs, who asked if he could “write something cheaper.” “When they’d rather spend their budget on the wrap party than on the music,” says Denenberg, “this is when you want an attorney like Sally who understands what goes into writing a song.”
For Mattison, coming to understand the industry’s business perspective has been eye-opening. “When you’re a creative person in the business,” she says, “you really have no idea how it works.” Lately she’s been eager to jump back into the creative side herself. She’s considering executive-producing an environmental film. At Penn Law, Mattison headed the environmental law society, and before she joined Bernie’s firm she had a short part-time stint as staff attorney for the Clean Air Council. Executive-producing would be another way for Mattison to bridge the gap between artistry and industry.
“In film,” she says, “I always felt like I was more academically inclined than everyone else. Now I feel like I’m more creatively inclined than a lot of lawyers. I guess I’m supposed to be in the middle.”