It Came From Hollywood

NATO (the other one) turns to former TV screenwriter Gary Klein as its legal counsel

Published in Corporate Counsel Edition - November 2010 magazine

By Erik Lundegaard on October 8, 2010


In 1985, Gary Klein, the current vice president and general counsel of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), was in the midst of his seventh year with an employment relations law firm in D.C., when his legal career got sidetracked.

At the time he was doing primarily lobbying and appellate litigation. “One of the highlights of my tenure there: I wrote an amicus brief to the Supreme Court representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the case that established the right of employers to request a search warrant prior to an OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] inspection,” he says. “The Supreme Court ruled nine to nothing that, yes, employers can request an administrative search warrant prior to an OSHA inspection.”

Not only did Klein have a J.D. from The George Washington University, but with an eye toward teaching, he had an LL.M. from Harvard. It was at Harvard that he became friends with, among others, a future ambassador to China and a future Hollywood producer. The latter, he says, “actually wound up producing a movie that has been listed almost every year since it came out as one of the 10 worst movies ever made: National Lampoon’s Class Reunion. The first script was written by John Hughes, and when he saw what it had become he sued to have his name taken off.”

He pauses. “And it really is a terrible movie.”

But, he adds, “This friend used to call me up and joke about how I should move out to Hollywood, because he always thought I was too laid back for the East Coast even though I kept reminding him I was born in New York City. Eventually he convinced me to come up with an idea for a half-hour sitcom.”

So Klein bought a book on writing for television by Syd Field and wrote a treatment for a show called There Oughta Be a Law, about the comings and goings of a fictitious congressional committee. Then he sent it to an entertainment lawyer friend, who got it into the hands of producer, who took it to NBC, who gave it its Hollywood ending: NBC bought the treatment and hired Klein to write the pilot.

“I literally quit my job, got married and moved [to California] within 10 days,” he says. “If you look at three of the top 10 most stressful things you can do in your life, and that generally lead to early death, I did three of them within 10 days and lived to tell about it.”

Some may wonder why Klein would leave a successful, lucrative law practice for the vagaries of the writing life, but Klein has a one-word answer for them: wardrobe. “If you can show up for work in shorts and a T-shirt every day…” His voice trails off. “Do I need to say more?”

The pilot Klein wrote was based upon an actual event—Congress, needing to pass a budget before midnight or shut down, literally stopped the clocks on Capitol Hill to get the work done—but the show never made it on the air. Klein wrote for other shows, including the Ann Jillian show, Mr. President with George C. Scott, and Darkwing Duck, and he supplemented his income by teaching law at Western State University College of Law in Fullerton, Calif. Then in 1988, the Writers Guild of America went on strike, and his agent informed him that, even when it was over, the economics in Hollywood would change and writing jobs would be hard to find. Giving up the shorts-and-T-shirt life, though, was tough; Klein needed one final push.

“I used to joke about the fact that my wife went into the secret room, where she kept the wives’ handbook that they all have but we’re not supposed to know about, and she looked up what you say in situations like this. And she came out and looked at me and said: ‘Isn’t it time you grew up and got a real job again?’”

Returning to D.C., Klein was hired as senior counsel to the solicitor of labor in the U.S. Department of Labor, and subsequently promoted to associate deputy secretary of labor. “That entailed providing legal advice on the enforcement of every law that the U.S. Department of Labor administers,” he says. “It was a fun job, but it was a political appointment, so when President Clinton was elected in ’92, literally the day after the election, you get a letter that says, ‘As of 12:01 p.m., on January 20th, your services will no longer be required.’”

After working for Sen. Chuck Grassley on his Senate Judiciary Subcommittee, Klein was hired as vice president of government affairs and general counsel for the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). “I was essentially their chief lobbyist,” he says. “I spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill lobbying on behalf of the industry—particularly over deliberations over the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

“I loved [lobbying],” he adds. “One time I was on a panel testifying before the House Commerce Committee with Jack Valenti, Hilary Rosen and Rob Glaser. So it’s all of these CEOs, right? Jack was the head of MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America], Hilary was the head of the Recording Industry Association of America, and Rob Glaser was the head of RealNetworks. And here’s Gary Klein!”

The big issue at the time for CEA was the transition from analog to digital broadcasting, and for NATO it was somewhat similar. According to Klein, only 15 to 20 percent of movie theaters use digital projectors, and only 10 percent are 3-D-capable. The organization is working to improve those numbers. But the biggest battle they’re fighting—ironically, given Klein’s CEA role of updating home entertainment—is the territorial incursion of home entertainment: The pressure to shrink the time between a movie’s theatrical release and its DVD, pay-per-view, or VOD (Video on Demand) release. At the moment, the average time for a movie to go from theaters to DVD is four months, but some smaller movies, particularly those associated with Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s Landmark Theatre chain, which is not part of NATO, have shrunk the window to zero: Movies are available for streaming in the home the same time they’re in the theaters. 

Is this the future? Klein, who came aboard in February, and is the only general counsel in NATO’s history to have been a member of one of the guilds, is dismissive of the theatrical doomsayers.

“In 2009,” he writes via e-mail, “the theaters had the biggest box office ever [unadjusted for inflation], over $10 billion, and 2010 is on the same track. The advent of 3-D has been a major factor in drawing an audience, but there is nothing equivalent to the communal experience of watching a great film in a theater. And ticket prices, when factoring in inflation, are about the same as they were 10 years ago, so movies are still the cheapest entertainment bang for the buck outside the home. Having been in a few elaborate ‘home theater’ rooms to watch movies, I can tell you it’s not the same.”

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