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AT A THEATER NEAR YOU: ATTORNEYS

Oct 19, 1999

The (California) Recorder

American Lawyer Media

By Di Mari Ricker

LOS ANGELES -- Everyone listened intently to what Laura Wasser had to say during the filming of _Liar Liar_ a couple of years ago. No, she wasn't the director or the producer of the comedy, which starred Jim Carrey as an attorney compelled to be disarmingly honest. Instead, Wasser was there in her capacity as a practicing lawyer.

In one courtroom scene, Carrey jumped up from the counsel table, spinning around like a Tazmanian devil before sashaying up to the judge. "That area is called the well," Wasser pointed out, while perched in a director's chair that had her name emblazoned across the back. "Lawyers aren't allowed to walk there." On the next take, Carrey remained at the counsel table. He later asked her if a real-life judge would have pounded his gavel while an attorney was speaking. "I don't know, Jim," she replied. "It depends on the judge."

A Century City lawyer at the family law boutique of Wasser, Rosenson & Carter, Wasser -- along with her father, Dennis -- served as a legal adviser on the film. Both of them reviewed several drafts of the script for legal accuracy, and Laura was on the set while the courtroom scenes were shot. Her father remained on call back at the office, dispensing technical advice to the filmmakers. Along with their hourly billing rates, the Wassers also received a screen credit at the end of the movie.

Needless to say, such credits are hot commodities in Tinseltown, where a name on the big screen has tremendous rsum value throughout the entertainment industry. And unlike "above-the-line" credits that are typically reserved for a movie's major stars, producers, writer and director, ending credits offer more latitude -- not to mention length. "Hey, even the hairdresser gets a credit now," cracks one L.A. entertainment attorney. "So why not the lawyers? "

That's precisely the position some lawyers are taking whether they work as legal advisers or further behind the scenes, such as arranging for film financing. "Some law firms are taking a more aggressive approach and negotiating a credit as part of their fee structure," says James Thoma, a partner in the L.A. office of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld who focuses on finance issues. For his part, Thoma, who received a credit for his finance work on the film _Cutthroat Island_ says he would have felt "uncomfortable" bargaining for it. "What are you going to do if they don't run your credit?" he wonders. "Sue your client?"

Wherever Thoma has worked, he says, the policy has been to "never ask for a credit, but gratefully accept it if it is offered." On _Cutthroat Island_, he didn't even know about his fleeting moment of on-screen recognition until a friend who saw the film mentioned it. "I was surprised as anyone else to see my name on a movie theater screen," he says.

So was Larry Ulman, who handles film financing as a partner at Los Angeles' Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which scored a credit on the current Kevin Bacon thriller _Stir of Echoes_. Artisan Entertainment, for whom Gibson, Dunn also did finance work on the newly released _Limey_, had offered the credit long ago. "I frankly forgot" about the credit, says Ulman, adding that it took a call from a reporter to learn about the firm's listing for its "legal finance" work. Ulman considers a credit a "recognition that even though the lawyer's work isn't seen on screen, there wouldn't be anything on the screen but for the work you did putting the financing together."

That's probably as good a reason as any why attorneys are showing up more frequently on those rapidly rolling credits. "Studios have a lot of rules about the end titles, and no one remembers why or when they were put in place, " says David Daugherty, a former business affairs executive at Polygram Filmed Entertainment who's now of counsel at L.A.'s Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp. "At Polygram, we didn't care much about end credits. We did it as a courtesy. If lawyers asked us for it, we usually gave it. Not much thought went into it."

To hear some lawyers tell it, they also don't necessarily give much thought to whether their names will pop up on the closing credits. Gregory Breedlove, a plaintiffs attorney at Cunningham, Bounds, Yance, Crowder & Brown in Mobile, Ala., says he had no idea that cable TV's History Channel was going to list him in the credits for a documentary on fog-related disasters that aired earlier this month. "The credit was a nanosecond on the screen. No one will ever know about this," says Breedlove, who was lead counsel for the victims of a railroad crash that occurred several years ago on the Sunset Limited line, which runs between Los Angeles and New Orleans. He learned of the credit from his publicist, who had received the news from a producer.

So how does Hollywood find its legal consultants, anyway? Big-firm film finance lawyers like Thoma and Ulman, of course, have longstanding relationships with entertainment companies. The History Channel found Breedlove by pulling the court pleadings on the Sunset Limited disaster. The producers wanted to interview Breedlove on air, but the judge had asked the lawyers to refrain from public comment. Instead, he provided background information.

As for the Wassers, their entre into Hollywood stemmed directly from their own legal specialty. Turns out they had handled a divorce for a studio exec involved in _Liar Liar_.

Di Mari Ricker is a contributing writer at _California Law Week_, an American Lawyer Media affiliate.

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