Legal Law

Glitz, Glamour, Grand Juries: A Dialog With Eriq Gardner About Leisure And Regulation – Above the Regulation

We reported earlier this week that veteran entertainment beat legal analyst Eriq Gardner is leaving The Hollywood Reporter to take on an expanded portfolio at Puck. In light of his upcoming departure, Above the Law checked in with Gardner to discuss his career, his move, and his assessment of the intersection of entertainment and law after covering it for years.

How did you first decide to get into covering the entertainment law space?

It wasn’t purely by design, but when I think back at the choices I made early in my career, the path makes sense. First and foremost, I really just wanted to be a storyteller. And I gravitated towards legal journalism because good stories typically involve remarkable characters and some conflict, and the law provided a canvas. I’m also a bit of a cultural omnivore, and I like to solve puzzles. Put it all together, and that’s a recipe for someone who will one day try to figure out what happened to the Walt Disney family fortune.

It’s not inside the Matterhorn with Walt’s carbonite-frozen body? You learn something new every day.

What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed since you started covering the space?

When I started, there was hardly anyone covering this full-time. Sure, there were occasional stories about disputes between studios and actors, escalating stories about technological disruption, and of course, stories of celebrity bad behavior, but journalists weren’t focused on industry fixers and they were hardly treating this area of law as an entire beat. That’s changed, and now there’s a terrific amount of competition to explore, how shall I put it, the operating code of the entertainment business. In turn, you see the industry adapting to the glare in various ways.

What’s your wildest prediction for the biggest legal story in entertainment’s future? Digitally resurrected actors? Machine learning screenwriters? Some kind of video game experience?

How far in the future are we talking? If it’s literally weeks from now, the biggest legal story is definitely the evolution to streaming, and there will certainly be some wild cases and labor negotiations meant to ensure fair compensation. If we’re talking turn of the 22nd Century, I’ll bet entertainment will be reckoning with the collapse of risk tolerance. Sometime in between, sure, digitally resurrected actors and machine learning screenwriters are the beginning of a good look at what’s to come. Broadly speaking, entertainment will increasingly grapple with all sorts of labor-displacing technologies from the ones allowing a few A-list actors to seize more and more roles from up-and-comers, to perhaps a major studio run by Bob A-Iger.

I never thought about AI studio leadership, but that probably makes more sense than even screenwriting because it feels like a lot of the decision-making is just paint-by-numbers response to audience response already. Why make a new movie when there’s a sequel or reboot available. Though, personally, an AI-Bob Evans would be way more entertaining.

War story time: what was your craziest story on the Hollywood beat?

It’s hard to pick. I could tell you about the time Donald Trump called me after a court hearing or the time when Bill Cosby’s attorneys accidentally in a court exhibit put the password to the files they kept on the cloud. But since this is Above the Law, let me share an experience that says something about the practice of law. A few years ago, I remember being locked in a room with no electronics by one of the nation’s largest law firms. The attorneys at this firm were giving me the opportunity to preview papers that would be filed in court in the matter of weeks. What makes this crazy was at this very exact moment, there were other attorneys at the very same firm who in a separate case were complaining to a judge that their adversary was leaking pre-filed court papers to me. In fact, before I went to the firm’s offices that day, I had run some analysis whether the whole invitation was a ruse to serve me a subpoena. “We don’t play like that,” they told me when I later asked.

I’m actually impressed they didn’t play like that. Score one for professional courtesy! I assume Trump displayed impeccable professional circumspection when talking to a reporter about a court hearing.

Trump complimented me on my accuracy.

Wow.

My coverage always tilts heavily toward NYC because that’s the center of gravity for Biglaw and I live here. You’ve managed to become a go to source for Hollywood legal news despite not living in Hollywood. How did you make and cultivate the relationships that keep you plugged into a far flung market?

Lawyers are often terribly frustrated by media coverage of legal affairs. So when they see a reporter who understands the nuance of what they do and can effectively identify and communicate the complicated stuff, they take an interest in that person. I’d like to think my relationships have been fostered first and foremost by the quality of my work. Proximity matters much less than anyone realizes. Also, you know how a good portion of your readers were discovering these past few pandemic years that they could get a lot done from their beach house? Yeah, well, I realized the truth about remote work long ago. Unfortunately, without the ocean view.

Over the course of your time covering this industry, it feels like there’s been a lot of consolidation. And not just in Hollywood (e.g., Disney sucking up Fox), but in video games too (e.g., Microsoft buying Activision). This administration talks a big antitrust game, but will the DOJ ever really come for the entertainers? Should they even try?

I think that in many ways, you can’t really talk about the history of antitrust law WITHOUT talking about entertainment. It’s a topic I’ve gone back to again and again and again. Where would the entertainment industry be but for not the 1948 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Paramount? So you can’t say the DOJ hasn’t come for the entertainers. Up until very, very recently, a good portion of the industry was ruled by consent decrees. Now, will the new administration do something about the latest wave of mergers? The answer is undoubtedly yes. They already have. Look at the case the DOJ is pursuing to block Random House from acquiring Simon & Schuster. That’s a big deal.

I don’t know… I almost feel like the House of Mouse has dirt on everybody. Which is actually a good transition to my next question. The last time Disney properties inched toward the public domain, the company managed to get the laws rewritten. With some Mickey Mouse cartoons entering the public domain in the next couple years, what’s going to happen?

I find it humorous that the copyright boogeyman continues to be Disney instead of those private equity guys spending billions for song catalogues. Instead of doing the math on Mickey Mouse, maybe we should start to count down the clock on Bob Dylan. Look, I don’t see any immediate push to further extend the copyright term, but I do expect some legal battles concerning what’s actually in the public domain. Or as one studio lawyer once put it to me, “Superman’s power of flight was not introduced until some years after the character first appeared.”

Yeah, I expect the first effort to faithfully adapt A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh is going to be fraught with litigation over what’s really in the book and what comes from the zeitgeist interpretation of the characters that we all have from decades of exposure to Disney’s take.

How many people are going to bankrupt themselves buying Dune NFTs before someone tells them it’s stupid?

Does it count as bankruptcy if you’re playing with crypto? Joking aside, I go back and forth about NFTs. I’m not that impressed by the supposed scarcity being marketed. But I’m intrigued with how artists have an opportunity to take a percentage every time a transaction happens. Given the traditional royalty structure in creative output, there’s something worth discussing here, although as I say the word ‘blockchain,’ I really hope I’m not triggering an avalanche of PR missives. I could easily regret this moment.

The only “blockchain” pitch that ever made complete sense to me from start to finish was about music. Take the RIAA out of the equation and whenever a recording of the song gets played, it ticks a royalty into the artists’ ledger. Certainly a more direct value proposition than thousands of copies of slightly different apes.

Puck is one of a number of new media startups hitting the scene right now, what drew you to join an outlet outside the traditional media ecosphere?

I’m definitely attracted to a venture that’s co-owned by the very journalists who are operating it. One that is emphasizing high-quality and engagement. I think that’s a good model. I don’t think it’s the only model for journalism’s future, but for someone like myself who is entrepreneurial, resourceful and goes to bed thinking about what it is I cover, it’s absolutely a draw.

As you expand your portfolio, what non-entertainment (or at least not explicitly entertainment) topic are you most excited to tackle?

Trade secret. Or should I say, trade secrets?

Fair enough.

So what’s your favorite movie?

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

Going to go ahead and assume not the infamous “love conquers all” cut. But kind of fitting that you go with a movie that had its own studio intrigue and potential legal fight over its editing.

I really love how “Brazil” explores a man’s descent into madness at the hands of bureaucracy. There may be lessons for attorneys in that one. And you’re right, the alternative “love conquers all” ending was terrible.

Well, congratulations again on the new job. Looking forward to seeing your expanded coverage into some new intersections between the law and the big industries driving the era.


HeadshotJoe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.

Related Articles