As streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video have swiftly transformed the entertainment business, NYU Law graduates are at the forefront of a changing Hollywood.
BY RACHEL BURNS
ILLUSTRATIONS BY RYAN GARCIA
During her 1L year at NYU Law, Lisa Marie Boykin ’95 attended a Spike Lee book signing. “I had always loved entertainment, loved television, loved movies. Never really knew exactly what entertainment lawyers did,” Boykin says. “I don’t know why I asked Spike Lee this, but I said, ‘You know, I’m interested in entertainment law, do you have any suggestions?’ And he immediately said, ‘Call my lawyer,’ and he gave me her phone number on the spot.”
Spike Lee’s lawyer, Lisa Davis ’85, a partner in the entertainment group at Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, gave Boykin some classic and well-tested advice: Do well at the Law School, spend some time at a law firm, and then go in-house at a studio. That’s the path that Boykin took, first working as an associate at the law firm now known as Milbank, then moving to PBS as a senior business affairs attorney, and taking positions at Paramount Pictures, Warner Brothers, Disney, and the production company Annapurna Pictures.
Last year Boykin joined Netflix as senior counsel of business and legal affairs for original series, in part because of the company’s reputation as “market disrupters,” Boykin says. Netflix is radically remaking the industry in which she built her career, and that’s fine with her.
“Twenty years ago, there was a Blockbuster on every corner,” Boykin recalls. “If you wanted to watch a movie, you went and got the video. When Netflix came along, you pay a flat fee, you watch as many movies as you want to.... That was so revolutionary.” In just a couple of decades, she says, her employer has become “a main powerhouse in the industry, rivaling studios that have been around for 100 years, shaking up Hollywood, shaking up the way that we enjoy content, the way that the Academy honors movies.”
Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video have revolutionized viewing habits in the United States and across the globe. Viewers can stream just about everything they can find on network and cable television. While Amazon rarely releases viewership data, in 2017 Reuters reported that Amazon Prime Video had 26 million US video viewers. In 2018, Hulu boasted that its viewers streamed more than 26 million hours per day on its platforms, and as of May 2019, the company had 28 million US subscribers. Netflix, as of April 2019, had 60 million US subscribers and nearly 150 million subscribers worldwide.
Robyn Aronson ’00, who had worked in a variety of jobs in Hollywood before she entered NYU Law, followed a career trajectory similar to Boykin’s after graduation: Clifford Chance, Davis Wright Tremaine, Viacom, and NBCUniversal. Then she jumped to Netflix, and now Hulu, where she is an attorney in Hulu Originals’ business and legal affairs department.
Aronson loved the start-up energy that she found at both streaming companies. At Netflix, Aronson says, she discovered “a convergence of a Silicon Valley mentality and the Hollywood mentality.” Likewise, she says, Hulu “is very much in a growth mode, figuring out what its place is in the media ecosystem.
“That sort of exploration is something that a lot of people find appealing about going to a streaming service, especially in the early days,” Aronson says.
Not surprisingly, legacy media companies are now hoping to cash in on the streaming market, too. In November, Disney will introduce its own streaming service, Disney+, which will offer the company’s animated and live-action classics as well as original series. Warner Brothers is creating its own streaming service as well—and tech companies are also getting in on the action, with Apple set to launch a streaming service this fall.
NYU Law graduates have long been a strong presence at most of Hollywood’s biggest law firms, agencies, and studios, while streaming as a business only dates back a little more than a decade. Netflix introduced its streaming platform in 2007. Hulu and Amazon Video on Demand followed in 2008. As streaming companies have become an increasingly important force in Hollywood, attracting entertainment law–minded alumnae like Boykin and Aronson, graduates of NYU Law also are making deals with those companies on behalf of actors, writers, and directors, and, in some cases, even producing the films and television series being streamed.
Kevin Morris ’88, managing partner of entertainment law firm Morris Yorn, got a head start. A deal he crafted a decade before the advent of streaming proved to be enormously beneficial to his clients as new technologies developed. Representing Matt Stone and Trey Parker, co-creators of South Park, Morris struck a deal with Comedy Central in 1997 that gave Parker and Stone 50 percent of all non-TV revenue from the show—including digital marketing profits. Initially, this meant revenue from South Park paraphernalia sales. But streaming put a new spin on digital marketing. In 2007, when Comedy Central launched a site to host South Park clips, episodes, and games, Morris negotiated a deal for Stone and Parker that included a guaranteed fee of $75 million from Comedy Central, in addition to 50 percent of online revenue from the show.
“And we just put the whole library of South Park online, which no one had ever done before,” Morris explains. The deal continued to pay off: in 2009 Netflix bought the rights to host South Park’s back catalog on its streaming service, and then in 2014, Hulu out-bid Netflix for exclusive streaming rights within the United States—although, Morris notes, Netflix still retains international streaming rights.
By 2010 the streaming deals were getting more complex. That year, Marci Wiseman ’89, then senior vice president of business affairs at AMC Networks, made the studio’s first major deal with Netflix—the first exclusive output deal between Netflix and a content studio. “Netflix had a very small number of employees back then, and we did a very big, historic deal with them,” she says, noting that the agreement included the network’s most popular show, The Walking Dead, as well as content from all five platforms at AMC Networks: AMC, IFC, WE tv, BBC America, and Sundance TV. “Then we made a subsequent deal for the AMC content four years later with Hulu.”
Now, as co-president of Blumhouse Television, Wiseman oversees the studio’s television series, of which there are 11 currently in production. Half of those series, Wiseman says, are for streaming services, including Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, and the forthcoming Warner Media platform.
As the streaming business has matured, more nontraditional content producers have found an outlet in the industry, too. In 2018 Matthew Johnson ’93, a partner at entertainment law firm Ziffren Brittenham, appeared on the Hollywood Reporter’s list of top dealmakers due to a streaming deal that made waves in both Los Angeles and Washington, DC: Barack and Michelle Obama’s multiyear production deal with Netflix.
“After the Obamas left the White House, it was very important they continue to have a platform to impact the conversation in a positive way. And there’s no better way to reach millions of people than through compelling stories,” Johnson says. “Netflix offered a platform that was unique in terms of the areas they covered.” Projects in the works include a documentary on the origin of the disability rights movement; a film adaption of the Pulitzer Prize–winning book Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, and a scripted series based on the New York Times “Overlooked” obituaries of individuals whose deaths were not originally reported in the newspaper.
As streaming has found a global audience, Netflix has been particularly focused on creating international content. “Netflix customizes content throughout the world, to cater to local interests and tastes, and to bring content to people that resonates,” says Boykin. As a result, more and more Netflix productions have been filming internationally—creating more opportunities for lawyers to work on cross-border productions.
“We have a series in India for Netflix India, which we make in the local language, that is based on Indian mythology,” says Blumhouse Television’s Wiseman. “Netflix makes a lot of local language content that they then release globally, and we work with local production companies and local creators. We develop the projects in English, and then we bring on Hindi writers, and they convert the projects. Then we shoot them all in India. We had a series last year that premiered called Ghoul. It was very successful, both in India and around the world.”
Prior to her role at Hulu, Aronson was the in-house lawyer working on Netflix’s documentary White Helmets, a short feature about volunteers in Syria who risked their lives to try to find survivors at bombing sites. It was Netflix’s first Oscar-winning film. Aronson says that she felt it was “genuinely important work. It was shining a light on folks and an aspect of the story that I think were otherwise forgotten. And then just from a purely legal point of view, trying to work out how to safely and legally [film] in Syria was an interesting challenge.”
Dean Garfield ’94—Matthew Johnson’s roommate at NYU Law—recently joined Netflix as head of global public policy. Having previously served as president and CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), vice president of legal affairs at the Recording Industry Association of America, and vice president of legal affairs of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Garfield sees his job at Netflix as a culmination of the many hats he has worn over the course of his career. He is working at the intersection of culture and business, while also dealing with some of the same issues faced by the tech companies who comprise the ITI: questions of information security, privacy, and intellectual property and copyright, which change from country to country.
“A lot of what I’m thinking about is, how do we make sure that for any law that’s passed or being implemented, there’s an understanding of what Netflix delivers in that country?” Garfield says. He offers an example: when countries within the EU are adopting EU regulations on issues such as copyright, “there’s still a lot of latitude for the policy makers to have discretion in how those laws get applied,” he says. “We want to make sure they understand the steps we’re taking to otherwise ensure that the purpose of the law is met.”
Pirates in the Stream
Intellectual property protections have become even more important as a host of illegal video-streaming websites have emerged. Entertainment companies and their lawyers have had to change anti-piracy tactics.
“As technologies evolve for the entertainment space, one of the key components is enforcement—making sure that we have a safe ecosystem in which people are playing by the rules,” says Monica Pa Moye ’02, principal counsel of the Walt Disney Company. Moye works on enforcement efforts targeting large-scale, for-profit theft of creative content by pirate websites and services.
Moye often collaborates with the MPAA and the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment (ACE), a coalition of companies that includes Amazon, HBO, Hulu, NBCUniversal, and Netflix in addition to Disney, to crack down on online piracy. Often in concert with the MPAA, ACE, or in a coalition of copyright holders, Moye has worked on successful copyright litigation against entities such as TickBox, VidAngel, and Megaupload. “In coordination with the MPAA, I manage copyright litigations in the United States and abroad, including cases in the highest courts in other countries, and the Court of Justice of the European Union,” Moye says.
In American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. v. Aereo, Inc., a coalition of broadcast companies sued a business that retransmitted streams of broadcast television programs. In her role at Disney, Moye managed the litigation, which was decided by the US Supreme Court in 2014. Ruling against Aereo, the court affirmed that the live retransmission of over-the-air television content over the internet constituted an unauthorized public performance under the Copyright Act. (Professor of Clinical Law Jason Schultz and the Technology Law and Policy Clinic filed an amicus brief in the case in support of Aereo.)
More recently, on June 17, 2019, Moye managed litigation on behalf of Disney against an illegal movie streaming service, called VidAngel, which resulted in a $62.4 million jury verdict. The jury found that, in decrypting Blu-ray and DVD discs, VidAngel acted willfully in engaging in copyright infringement and circumvention of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Moye suggests that the proliferation of content available on legal platforms reduces piracy. “The goal of my work is to promote a dynamic, safe, and legal marketplace for creative content. As you make content more available online, that addresses the need for piracy,” she says. “But strong enforcement measures are required to protect consumers against the risks associated with using illegal piracy devices or illegal streaming applications and services.”
The Land of Opportunity
All that content needs to come from somewhere. Streaming has changed where the opportunities are, says Johnson. “You have the traditional networks and studios, you have all the cable companies, and now you have all the streaming companies. There’s a great opportunity for creators.”
That’s good news not just for artists making their way in the industry, but for the agencies and lawyers who advise them. “Our job is to represent people who create content,” says Rick Levy ’92, founding partner, managing member, and general counsel at ICM Partners, one of the industry’s largest talent agencies. “Whether they’re creating content for things that are showing up in the movie theater, on broadcast network TV, or cable, pay cable, or over streaming is less relevant in the sense that we still represent the best-in-class artists and creators.”
“Streamers have—at least theoretically—infinite slots to put programming on,” Wiseman says. She adds: “There’s certainly more production of original content than ever before. That trend has been in operation probably for the better part of the last seven years or so.” In 2018, according to a report by FX Networks, there were nearly 500 scripted television series—32 percent of which were produced by online platforms.
Streaming has also created opportunities for Law School alumni working in entertainment in areas including sports, music, and technology. For example, Jim DeLorenzo ’99 is the head of sports for Amazon Video Channels; Donald Zakarin ’75, a partner at Pryor Cashman, has represented music publishers in negotiating higher rates from Spotify and Apple Music; and Alex Simon ’01 is the vice president for business and legal affairs at the streaming technology company Roku.
But there are some caveats. “The audience is fragmented, and will continue to be fragmented,” Wiseman says of the film and television landscape, leading to different economic incentives for content makers.
Levy notes that while network television series traditionally have 22 to 24 episodes per season, many streaming services are producing shows with as few as 10 episodes per season. And streaming services have less incentive to keep renewing the series they produce, he adds.
“Even a very successful show, these streaming services don’t keep on for as many seasons as the others, because all they’re interested in is launching new subscribers, or keeping their subscriber base, as opposed to continuing on with ratings and getting people to tune into a particular time slot. As a result, you’re not seeing the really successful shows go eight years, 10 years, 12 years,” says Levy. “That’s shifted the business model for the talent, and it’s shifted the business model for the agents that represent them.”
Kevin Morris of Morris Yorn cautions that it would be a mistake to rule out the significance of broadcast networks and basic cable in the economy of contemporary Hollywood. “Basic cable still has 90 million subscribers in the US paying $110 per month, and 550 million subscribers worldwide,” Morris says. “So my contrarian thought is that...no matter how successful streaming has been, to say cable is over or anything like that is still a massive [misunderstanding].
“People are also just watching TV more,” he adds. “The average viewing time with the advent of streaming has just increased.”
For the moment, that means that there is a need for lawyers to represent the interests of traditional media enterprises as well as new streaming players—which means there are plenty of openings for lawyers interested in entering the entertainment industry.
“Just in the last six months, we announced the promotion of six or seven young business and legal affairs executives at [ICM],” says Levy. In the past, he adds, “maybe one or two jobs got created each year—at the most—in business and legal affairs. But we’re recognizing that there are a lot more opportunities, and a need for young business affairs executives and lawyers.”
For NYU Law graduates eager to dive into the world of streaming content, that’s an invitation.
Posted September 4, 2019