EVEN ON OSCAR NIGHT, it’s hard to imagine talent like Owen Wilson, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Roberts, Richard Gere, Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Antonio Banderas, Jane Fonda, Bernie Mac, Baz Luhrmann, Dick Donner, Francis Ford Coppola and Barry Levinson together in one place. But that’s happening now, at least figuratively, in nondescript Room 313 of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse, where two law firms are slugging it out before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert H. O’Brien. The nonjury trial will decide how to divvy up the money from the Hollywood deals they both claim as their own.
Though only Penn, Coppola and Levinson have testified so far, some 200 stars and 500 projects are being scrutinized in the proceedings, which began on October 18 and will probably continue through Thanksgiving. So far, it hasn’t generated a single media story because none of the firms involved want publicity about it, fearing their star clientele might pitch fits. Also because if reporters did get wind of the trial, it would be fodder as much for Entertainment Tonight and US magazine as for the Hollywood trades and legal journals.
The lawsuit, first filed on August 13, 2004, by Hollywood super lawyer Barry Hirsch against his former firm, which he founded, Hirsch Jackoway Tyerman Wertheimer Austen Mandelbaum & Morris (which quickly exorcised Hirsch’s name), was bitter from the get-go. It quickly turned even sourer when his old firm turned around and filed a cross-complaint against Hirsch and his new partners (who were members of the old firm). As if that weren’t enough, Hirsch then sued the wife of his ex-partner, Jim Jackoway. She is an attorney and shareholder in the old firm but was never on its management committee. It seems Hirsch wanted to pressure her so Jackoway and his partners would settle. But she toughed it out, and when Hirsch’s side exhausted its ability to go after her, they dismissed her from their lawsuit.
Nasty, nasty, nasty.
By setting this mess in motion, Hirsch opened up a Pandora’s box for many of his clients. Already, the financial terms of some of the most well-known movies ever made have been entered into evidence. Among the films mentioned in court documents and during the trial have been Wedding Crashers, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Pretty Woman, The Godfather and its sequels, Mystic River, The Naked Gun and its sequels, Peggy Sue Got Married, The Polar Express, On Golden Pond, Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve, Shopgirl, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Chicago, Closer, Conspiracy Theory, Dangerous Minds, Disclosure, Rain Man and on and on.
Also caught in the crossfire have been Hollywood studios like Sony, New Line, Universal, Disney, Miramax, Warners and Paramount, some of which have tried to quash subpoenas compelling them to turn over deal details.
So week after week, a herd of expensive blue and gray suits — 15 at any one time, about half of them Hollywood lawyers — filled the court rather than finished their clients’ deals. The judge, described as curt but also perfect for this case because he’s meticulous and focused, keeps his sagging jowls in a permanent frown. Clearly, he must know what everyone else does: That this is a run-of-the-mill business dispute involving money and ego that should have been solved with mediation. Oh, there were many mediations, but Hirsch’s position varied little from first to last. Going into trial, Hirsch’s original complaint was near gutted, while the defendants’ cross-complaint survived nearly intact.
The case revolves around both sides’ claims about just who owns the legal fees for the work that was performed for all that Hollywood talent and during all those projects. Hirsch’s former firm contends they own the legal fees collected by Hirsch’s new firm (or what’s in the joint escrow account they set up subsequent to Hirsch’s departure) because those deals were negotiated or substantially negotiated before Hirsch’s departure. So much of the trial has been looking at the anatomy of each deal.
In some instances, the clients’ names are redacted from evidence, but then bandied about in court. However, no one seems certain whether the Hollywood talent themselves know they are being identified in this trial.
In court on Monday, Howard Fishman, a partner in Hirsch’s new firm, Hirsch Wallerstein Hayum Matlof & Fishman, took the witness stand and told how he helped with the sale and syndication of Julia Roberts’ photographs of her twin children to the press. There was also mention of Marisa Ramirez and her deal for the TV show Miracles. Other client names dropped were Jane Fonda, Robert Redford and Rachel Weisz, who needed the firm’s help negotiating a deal with Revlon.
And that was just one hour’s worth of testimony. Woo-hoo.
Hirsch’s side rested its case on Tuesday; now the defense begins. But not before his new firm was put into an awkward position with some of its current clients. For instance, on Monday, testimony from Fishman focused on one of his clients, actress Rachel McAdams, and details from the former firm’s deals on The Notebook and Mean Girls. Haggling centered on what percentage of money the new firm would get on projects negotiated by the old firm. One interesting footnote had to do with the various ancillary services that the old firm would provide some clients, like estate planning. McAdams wanted that too. But it came out in court Monday that Fishman, when he was with the old firm, had written witheringly that, while McAdams “has a very bright future, she probably has not paid us enough money to date to justify estate-planning services.”