Film Independent Fri 4.24.2015

Member Spotlight: Entertainment Lawyer Peter Kaufman On Why He Loves Working With Independent Filmmakers

Name: Peter Kaufman
Discipline: Entertainment Lawyer
Arts Circle Member Since: 2012

What led you to your career as an entertainment lawyer?
Well, I thought I wanted to be an actor, but I wasn’t sure I had the skills to pull that off. I’m creative, and wanted to work with creative people. I had always been good at making a good argument, and representing creative people struck me as an ideal way to work with and to serve the creative community.

When you started law school, did you know from the beginning that you wanted to be back in the entertainment world?
Yes, I did. I’ve always had an attraction to the [entertainment] business, ever since I was a kid. My brother, sister and I used to put on shows of old jokes and celebrity imitations for our family. My grandparents and parents often invited folks in the entertainment and fashion industries out for dinner and allowed us to tag along.

How did you first get involved with Film Independent?
Admiration. So much of the business is about the bottom line, and Film Independent is about the art. The name “Independent Spirit” for the Film Independent Spirit Awards says it all. It’s really all about the art and the desire to execute against insurmountable odds. To have an organization built around that; that’s both admirable and inspiring. And to have an organization that is as well-regarded both inside and outside the industry is even more laudable. The odds against you are incredibly high, yet Film Independent is able to pull it off with style. When you see something that works in the long-odds business of independent film, you have to be a part of it.

What do you wish independent filmmakers knew more about before they came to you?
There is an aspirational innocence to those folks not well-versed in the business. Now that’s bad and it’s good. It’s bad in the sense that they don’t know the odds against success, and it’s good in the sense that they don’t know the odds against them. If they knew what was coming, they wouldn’t do it, or they’d worry more. And there’s a lot you can’t control for. That’s why, when I’m speaking to clients, especially clients who haven’t [made a film] or have limited experience, it’s a question of managing expectations. It’s about changing the paradigm from success or failure, to process.

I wish new filmmakers understood that the heavy lifting required to make a movie isn’t just getting their movie financed or produced. It’s about film distribution. That’s a key thing, and, understandably, they’re so busy with steps one and two—in fact, listen to the way I’m saying it. I’m saying it like it is chronological when it isn’t. It all has to be done at the same time. So you write a great screenplay. Well, now we need money and we need attachments that mean something for distributors. Not necessarily every distributor, but enough to gain traction to get distribution.

I’m often not just thinking about my clients’ success on their first picture. I’m thinking about my client’s success on pictures two and three and how picture one leads to that. So now we have to take a holistic approach, which means we almost have to start thinking about distribution first, if we’re going to prioritize something. Because the only way there is a picture two and three is if there’s distribution on picture one.

What does your average day look like? What are the nuts and bolts of the job?
Let me give you the dry version, and then let me give you what I think is the real version. The dry version is that people come to us at all stages of the creative process when they need to reach an understanding with someone else, or to use lawyer’s language, a “third party.” Clients sometimes come to us too early, which is my preference, but more often they come to us too late and we’re kind of chasing the deal. So that is essentially our task, to document the deal between parties with under very tight constraints. You’ve got just one pie to share with a number of folks working on a movie. And so you have to divine a strategy. This is where I get to be a little more creative. As a lawyer, no matter where my client is on the power spectrum, I have to maximize the opportunity they have. So what I’m doing—and what the lawyers who work with me are doing—is anticipating a future, and not only documenting, but building momentum for a client.

Here’s a hypothetical: I’m representing you, Tom. You’re a new filmmaker, and you have your first deal. And you want to direct. So we’re going to go for things that empower you as an artist and establish a floor for negotiating future projects. Things that are not that important to the producer I’m negotiating with may be important to us in our representation of you because we’re thinking about the next deal and we want to establish your quote, or salary history.

You have producing credits on a handful of films. How did you end up as a producer?
Well, it’s no secret that a lot of entertainment lawyers wish that they could produce. I think that the career fortunes for the average producer are somewhat challenging if one wants to have a grounded and multi-dimensional life with family and friends and career. And the ability to dabble in producing, especially as I’ve established myself more professionally as a lawyer, is a really nice challenge. I think producing is the hardest job I’ve ever had. As a lawyer, we’re there and we’ve got our shovels ready to clean up any messes and all of that, but what I found as a producer is that, in addition to being there to clean up the mess or to assist a client executing, being vulnerable creatively came as a surprise to me. They say part of growth, throughout life, is constantly going outside of your comfort zone. Producing is part of going outside of my comfort zone. I have renewed respect for my producer colleagues. That’s for sure.

If you could be a part of any film ever—past, present or future—what film would it be?
It would have been great to work with Orson Welles on any of his movies. I bet it was God-awful, because I suspect he was exacting and demanding. You don’t get to execute at the level he did without being like that. Having said that, I’m not sure about the creative latitude that lawyers had back in the ‘40s on pictures like that.

So, once again, why independent film?
Because independent producers are doing yeoman’s work, for lack of a better word. Anybody can throw a project into development hell. And part of that is true process. But a lot of it is performance anxiety. People are afraid to execute. And people on the independent side execute, despite the very real prospect of failure. They put themselves right on the line. It’s inspiring. And to be around those people on a regular basis, it’s what drives me as a lawyer. You asked me a little while ago about day-to-day and the paperwork, and on the independent side, you have to be very creative as a lawyer. You have two parties that have differing agendas and you have to build a bridge. That may not be as simple as doing things the way they’ve been done before. We sometimes need to come up with something new and innovative to keep the deal together.

Not to impugn my colleagues at the big studios, but when you’re in a bigger operation, you need uniformity. You need the ability to have a set of precedents and methodologies that work on a consistent basis. Otherwise, it’s very difficult to run a legal department at a studio. I don’t fault them for that. But when you’re on the independent side, you can break through that paradigm and you can come up with some really interesting, maybe crazy, stuff that works. You’ve got three banks involved and you’ve got somebody’s parents and you’ve got an actor taking a deferment and that deferment has to happen at a certain time. All of this is carefully constructed, but it’s rickety. When you’re dealing with that kind of construct, you need to come up with some creative stuff just to keep it all together. That’s what attracts me to the independent film business because that’s what you do as a lawyer. You’re basically making the impossible happen for people every day.

Find out more about joining Film Independent’s Arts Circle. 

Tom Sveen / Film Independent Blogger