You obviously ran a tight ship. So let’s fast forward a little, now you’re at E!, how did that happen?
After two seasons of Millionaire, I was hired into business and legal affairs at the Walt Disney Company (the owner of the production company producing Millionaire) and spent 3 more years working directly with the boss who had hired me from Millionaire.
So now you’ve added “business” to the title. How did that happen and what does that mean? Many lawyers I have talked to want to make the transition from BigLaw to in-house, but their lack of “business” background makes them especially scared to take on a job that has that word in the title.
In the entertainment law field, the “business” title does not mean you are now building financial models. Deal negotiation within entertainment companies typically happens either through a combined business and legal affairs department with smaller companies/divisions or in separate business affairs and legal affairs departments at larger studios. Lawyers naturally (and mostly) fill business affairs positions because they are well versed in the applicable deal work. I was in a small division with a combined business and legal affairs department, I essentially inherited the business portion of the title with only production legal experience.
So now I’ve gone from working on the ground level of a production, to working at a production company with various production and development. Basically, I’ve gone from sea level working on one program to 10k feet above sea level negotiating for various development projects and on-going productions.
So in terms of skill set building, was this simply a matter of picking up the business affairs end of it. i,e. Did you feel pretty confident with your legal affairs skills at this point?
I was bolstered by my on-set experience, not all business and legal affairs execs have the opportunity to get on-set experience, but I was a complete rookie as a business and legal affairs executive.
Disney is where I really begun to acquire my business and legal affairs skills. At Millionaire I learned about TV production and the legal documentation necessary for an ongoing production, namely a game show (such as contestant releases, license agreements for 3rd party materials (e.g. film clips, photos, music)) but I never actually negotiated a talent deal from the ground up until I got to California.
The business affairs part is essentially the term sheet of it all… the conception of a deal structure to the calling of the agent and saying “hey, tv production company X is interested in hiring your client to appear on a show, here’s what we have to offer”…to closing that deal in principal. Then the legal affairs will take over and negotiate a long form agreement. Following the negotiation of the paperwork, the business and legal affairs exec (or execs if there are split responsibilities) will overseethat agreement (and perhaps renegotiate it) for the life of a TV series.
I hope that gave some of my readers a decent handle on it, I’m a little dizzy. We’re still not at E!, take me there.
I was promoted while at Disney but within a small division I had hit my ceiling and needed to look for new opportunities. I now had some negotiating experience, I put in the time, I interviewed at the Comcast Entertainment Group for a business and legal affairs position supporting E! and an on-demand channel FEARnet and I got the job.
Hit the ceiling? Enlighten us. In law firm world that means you either make partner or you don’t. How does the hierarchy in-house work. Did you want to be the CEO? Was there really no more upward mobility?
The recession was in full tilt, my division at Disney was contracting, I was vulnerable and needed to move.
I think many of us can relate to that. So now you’re at E! Do you have your dream job?
Since I made the transition from Skadden, I have definitely felt that I am on the right path, but you know I’m 10 years post law school and I still feel like I’m just starting out.
We haven’t gotten to my most pressing question, but I’m thinking we may have covered it in someways. I think a lot of people here “in-house” and wonder what its like day-to-day? Can you walk us through a day in the life of Jeffrey Fuhrman, Executive Director, business and legal affairs?
I aspire to get in super early, but usually get in around 9, and work till around 7. I work with a team of development and production attorneys like myself. We share the workload for the E!, style and G4 cable networks as well as an internal production studio. I am the point person on several productions as well as development projects. I spend my day fielding calls from producers, our finance/management (i.e. our money people), our creative execs to agents and lawyers negotiating deals. Each day is different depending on which fire is burning the hottest. I also spend time drafting various agreements.
Drafting yikes. I thought you were done with that. That leads me into my next questions. Worst part of your day?
I spend a lot of time chasing people for various approvals to push my work forward. I look forward to (hopefully) the day when the buck stops with me.
Best part of your day? Is it getting to rock that scruff that I’m looking at right now?
Best part of my day when, when I sit back and realize that I work in television. I still very much remember how I felt when I was just starting out as a lawyer and I was nowhere close to where I wanted to be. I try to appreciate how far I have come and how lucky I am to be here on a daily basis. Sometimes I am not as diligent about it as I should be.
Best celeb interaction?
Kelly Ripa. When I working on Regis and Kelly (sometimes at Millionaire I helped out on sister productions), I was on set one day, working with the EP on the resolution of a live on-air contest in front of the audience, Kelly questioned my credentials, claiming I looked too young to be a lawyer.
So you’re saying Kelly Ripa hit on you in front of an audience full of people?
Absolutely not, I ‘m saying she thought I looked unqualified.
So that’s why you rock the beard?
I’ve always had a tepid rebellious streak.
Three things you cant live without?
Right now… my iPhone, Trader Joe’s and California sun.
Book your reading right now?
Bossypants by Tina Fey.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Still working in content production. Onwards and upwards. I love TV, I want to stay in TV but I also want keep growing, so if not here working for these networks, I see myself at a tv, film or new media production company working as close to the content as possible in an executive capacity.
What do you think it takes to be successful in your niche?
Integrity and the ability to find creative ways to compromise. I work in a very close community of executives, agents and lawyers. We all deal with each other repeatedly throughout our careers. I think you need to take a long term view of your career and work with your clients and your counterparts to achieve fair and mutually satisfactory resolutions based on the critical needs of the parties. It’s important not only to have the trust of the people you work for, but also that of the people you work with in the community.
One piece of advice you would give to all those corporate lawyers who dream of working in-house at entertainment company?
Don’t let the golden handcuffs get too tight. When you reach that fork in the road, recognize it and take the risk you are afraid to take before you can’t afford to take it. If you don’t want to be a lawyer, don’t assume that you’ll love being an entertainment lawyer.
One piece of advice you wish you had followed?
Don’t go to law school.