Alex Kohner and the Naked Truth

Connected? Kohner’s pals and his family helped propel him to success

Published in 2007 Southern California Rising Stars — July 2007

Alex Kohner was frantic. Naked, the rock band he managed, was set to go onstage, but the tour manager, tired of being stiffed by the record label, had just taken the lead guitarist’s axe hostage. Intense negotiations followed. At the last possible minute, Kohner brokered an agreement, the guitar was released, the band went on, and civilization—or at least the concert—was saved.

Kohner has come a long way from those not-so-distant days of negotiating ransom demands for musical instruments. Today the 35-year-old sits as the youngest partner at Barnes Morris Klein Mark Yorn Barnes & Levine, representing writers/directors Paul and Chris Weitz (About a Boy; Antz); directors George Armitage and Mark and Michael Polish; and actors Jason George and Will Patton, as well as working with some of the firm’s top clients, including Chris Rock, Vince Vaughn, Heather Graham, Ellen DeGeneres and John Singleton.

Not to mention that in 2005, at the age of 33, he found himself perched on The Hollywood Reporter’s “Top 35 Executives Under 35” list.

Still, if it weren’t for a beat-up station wagon and a couch, Kohner might not be where he is today.

During his senior year of college at UC Berkeley, Kohner applied to law school, even though, he says, “I was very clear at the time I was not going to practice law. I thought maybe I’d go into business, and knowing law would be an asset.” Going to Loyola Law School also bought him time while he figured out what to do next.

Shortly after entering Loyola, Kohner received a breathless 4 a.m. phone call from an old musician friend.

Back in high school, Jonathan Sheldon played in bands, and because Kohner drove a beat-up station wagon, Kohner was recruited to be the band’s “roadie,” lugging their equipment to and from gigs. Now, the singer told Kohner, his band, Naked, had signed a huge record deal with MCA and would be touring all over the place, and did Alex still have the station wagon?

That was a joke, but over the next year Sheldon picked Kohner’s brain on a variety of business and legal matters, until they decided that Kohner should officially join them and manage the band. For the next three years, he pulled double duty, attending law school during the day, and touring with the band and handling their affairs the rest of the time.

“They wore leather pants. I wore a suit. It was clear they were the musicians and I was the person to talk to,” says Kohner, who has a passing resemblance to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Suddenly, the future was bright. The band opened for acts like Third Eye Blind, Matchbox 20 and Sarah McLachlan, released a top-10 single and two videos on MTV, and headlined around the country. “I was offered a number of great jobs by other management companies. I was set,” Kohner says.

That is, until just as suddenly as they exploded on the scene, the band broke up. With that, Kohner learned a harsh lesson. “The management companies closed their doors. They were only mildly interested in me. They just wanted to get to the band.”

With no job and no prospects, Kohner, freshly graduated from Loyola, knocked on a couple of doors, including that of Lee Phillips, Naked’s attorney. Phillips had no openings in Manatt, Phelps and Phillips’ music department, but the film department had a spot.

“Right away I was an associate for many of the firm’s entertainment clients, such as Michael Douglas and Mel Brooks,” he says.

It was a great break, but the learning curve was steep and the hours were lo-o-ong.

One day, Kohner received a call from an independent film producer friend of his in San Francisco. She and a writer/director, Greg Harrison, were coming to Los Angeles to cast their new movie. “They had next to no money, so I let them hold auditions in my apartment,” Kohner says.

They bonded during the process, and later, when the film was accepted into Sundance, the friend/producer asked Kohner to represent them, in case someone wanted to buy the movie.

Immediately after the showing of Groove, several studios made offers, and a bidding war ensued. Thirty-six hours of around-the-clock negotiations later, Kohner reached a deal with Sony Classics for a $1.5 million advance and a substantial chunk of the back end. “That was the first time I made a big deal for someone that I really represented,” he says.

When the filmmakers rebuffed offers from other lawyers eager to represent them by declaring, “We love our attorney,” Kohner was on his way.

It’s while recounting stories like this that Kohner’s enthusiasm shines through. “These people came to L.A. and slept on my couch. They borrowed all this money to make the movie. And suddenly I could make this deal for so much more money than they ever imagined. That’s what I love about what I do.”

In 2001, Kohner left Manatt for Barnes, and another major turning point ensued. His cousins, Paul and Chris Weitz, asked him to represent them. “That was wonderful, because I care about them deeply, and because they’re important artists.”

Actually, whoever coined the expression “That’s why they call it show business” to denote the industry’s dual nature could have had Kohner’s family in mind.

His grandfather, Paul Kohner, founder of the still-extant agency bearing his name, represented such legends as Henry Fonda, Maurice Chevalier, Ingmar Bergman, Billy Wilder and John Huston. Over on the “show” side, his grandmother, Lupita Tovar, a Mexican actress so honored in Mexico that her photo appeared on a postage stamp, was “discovered” in a way that out-Schwabs Lana Turner.

While a high school student in Oaxaca, Mexico, Tovar was spotted by a Fox Studios executive scouting for foreign faces to appear in its silent films (fortunate, considering she spoke no English). She signed a two-year contract, moved to Universal, appeared in a few films, and started dating Paul Kohner. When her contract expired, Kohner, desperate to keep her from returning to Mexico, asked her to stay another 24 hours. Running to studio head Carl Laemmle, Kohner proposed that Universal make foreign versions of the films they were making during the day, at night, when the sets and costumes weren’t being used. Laemmle signed off, Tovar stayed on to make some 30-odd films, and a new family, not to mention an entire film industry, was born. She was recently given the Ariel, the Mexican equivalent of the Oscar lifetime achievement award.

Back on the “business” side are Kohner’s parents. His mother, Ellen, started the Aspen Film Festival, enlisting 8-year-old Alex to hand out fliers. During the summers he flew to Los Angeles to live with Pancho, his film-producer dad, who produced several Charles Bronson movies,
and the children’s animated film and TV series Madeline.

When he was old enough, his father brought him to business meetings and gave him a job as a production assistant, a position Kohner describes as “the lowest job there is on a movie set.”

He adds, “But I got to see how excited my father was when one of his projects was green-lighted.”

This past March, Barnes moved from its Santa Monica offices to Avenue of the Stars in Century City, to the same building as industry giant CAA. Kohner calls the move “significant, because now we’re in the heart of the business.”

The move also parallels a maturation on Kohner’s part.

“There’s a point where it all clicks and you can start finding creative new ways to structure deals. We can do amazing things, but it’s all driven by the talent of the artist. The challenge is being patient, resourceful, creative and finding a way to make deals when the sides are miles apart.”

Even though he hasn’t been in the entertainment business all that long, Kohner has already seen big changes. “I’m really excited about digital distribution and all the technology changes. All of a sudden you have a creative kid in the middle of nowhere and he can make a movie practically on a cell phone, edit it on a computer and distribute it on YouTube.”

With the changes come challenges, of course. “Production companies are consolidating. Deals are getting harder to make. Another major shift is [that] ad dollars are leaving TV for the Internet.”

But there’s an upside to the downside. “No matter what,” Kohner says, “People love entertainment. Talented actors and storytellers will always be in demand. The questions are how are people going to get it, how do we make sure they’re paying for it, and [how can we ensure] that the artists and filmmakers are receiving their share.”

Despite achieving so much so early, Kohner does have a private life. He’s been married four years to wife Ali and has twin 3-year-old daughters, Charlotte and Daisy. He also finds time to restore vintage race cars with his father, which Kohner then races.

For a young guy, Kohner is well-traveled on the celebrity circuit. But while he says that has been very exciting, there’s still one person he’s dying to encounter:

“I would be absolutely thrilled to meet Steve Jobs.”

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