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The Serious Business of Motion Pictures and Television: Short Course Offers Range for the Hollywood-Bound

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In a two-credit course called "Entertainment Law: Motion Pictures and Television," Nicholas La Terza, a visiting professor and veteran entertainment lawyer based in Los Angeles, will offer Miami Law students a comprehensive survey of the legal and business issues encountered by Hollywood's transactional attorneys. The course, which begins on April 1, will be presented from the perspective of the practitioner who represents clients who are involved in the production and exploitation of films and programs intended for exhibition in theatres and on television.

Professor La Terza is a member of the California Bar and has been an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles for more than 25 years. He earned a B.S. and an M.A. magna cum laude from Villanova University and earned a J.D. cum laude from the University of Toledo Law School. After graduation, he clerked for Federal District Court Judge Jesse Curtis in the Central District of California. He practices with The Point Media, serving clients in the entertainment industry who work primarily in the areas of production, finance and distribution. Professor La Terza is a past Chairman and current member of the UCLA Law School Entertainment Law Symposium Committee, as well as a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The British Academy of Film and Television Arts and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

The following is an interview with Professor La Terza conducted by Vaishali Desai, a Post-Graduate Student Service Fellow at Miami Law:

Why did you choose to teach at Miami Law?

I have two connections to Miami Law School. One of my oldest friends from my college days, Tom McGuigan, graduated from Miami Law in 1974 and through him I came to learn about Miami Law's entertainment law program. The other connection is through David Nimmer, whom I know more recently from Los Angeles. David's father, Mel Nimmer, whom I knew well as a young lawyer, was of counsel with two law firms where I worked. Mel wrote the treatise on copyright law, and now David, an accomplished legal scholar himself, continues to update the treatise. David is also a visiting professor at Miami Law and speaks very highly of the school. It is through these connections that I became interested in teaching at Miami Law. I am very grateful I was given the opportunity and I want to thank Associate Deans Illeana Porras and Doug Bischoff, as well as Dean White, for making me feel most welcome.

What are you most looking forward about teaching at Miami Law?

I really enjoy teaching. I taught at Miami Law last year and my students were obviously very interested in the material. They asked intelligent and sometimes challenging questions. It is very gratifying to a teacher to find students genuinely engaged, and I find that here at Miami Law School.

What can a Miami Law student hope to get out of your class?

My class really is designed to reflect the real-world experience of practicing mainstream transactional entertainment law. The course is more about real-world practicalities than the legal theories which are emphasized in first-year courses. We talk about transactions that an entertainment lawyer negotiates on a daily basis, the kinds of transactions being documented in the legal departments at major law firms, studios and networks, what you would actually find the lawyers doing at their desks.

What is your most memorable teaching experience?

The most memorable and gratifying experiences related to teaching happen for me when former students now employed in the industry tell me that my course really meant something to them and helped them in their practice. For any professional who teaches others in the next generation of their trade, there is this sense of passing the baton. And there is something uniquely gratifying about that.

What's the coolest place to which you've traveled?

Because I was in the independent movie business, I used to go to the Cannes Film Festival every year. The French Riviera is pretty glamorous any time, but being there during the festival is really a one-of-a-kind experience: Cannes is mobbed with industry people, and buzzing with paparazzi and movie stars. But behind the scenes a lot of serious business and hard-nosed negotiating goes on.

Please give us one fun fact about yourself.

In another life, before I became a lawyer, I was a professional rock musician. I was a fair keyboard player and singer and worked full-time with a couple of traveling cover bands you never heard of, playing nightclubs up and down the east coast for about three years in the 70's. I still play almost every day and I still occasionally perform for fun.

What was the most interesting case you've worked on?

One of the more interesting deals that I worked on closed at the Cannes Film Festival. This was early in my career, but it still stands out in my memory. It involved a very fine film, "Kiss of the Spider Woman," starring William Hurt, Sonia Braga and Raul Julia. We were representing the distributor acquiring the rights. I was chasing after the producers in Cannes all week trying to get the contract finalized and signed. The movie became the darling of the festival and the longer we were there, the more apparent it became that it was a hit. The picture eventually got multiple Academy Award nominations. William Hurt won the Cannes Best Actor Award and went on to win the Best Actor Oscar. It was my job to get the deal done and the longer it took, the more paranoid I became that some other distributor might bid more and make the producers change their minds about closing the deal with our client. All I remember is running around Cannes like crazy trying to get a signature on the papers. To my relief, I finally did. Turned out, of course, the producers were very glad to be in business with our clients and the deal was actually quite safe, missing signature notwithstanding, but I was still green enough for the lack of signed papers to be really worrisome.

What do you consider your greatest contribution to the field?

Contribution can be thought of in more than one sense. Doing good work for clients certainly makes a contribution to their business and I like to think I've done a lot of that over the years. I also think that what I've been doing since 2008, teaching, is another significant contribution to the field. I was lucky enough to have some great mentors. Passing along what I've learned feels like a pretty worthwhile contribution. Seeing my students become successful – that definitely makes me think I have made a contribution.

What kinds of jobs are there for aspiring young attorneys in your field?

There are jobs out there and the picture is getting better. For brand new lawyers, there are entry-level jobs in studios and networks and the bigger independent production companies, some of which also offer internships. Large law firms that do entertainment and media work are starting to hire again. Young attorneys can also start in general litigation and move into transactional practice of entertainment law. Students should look into opportunities in their target areas and come up with a list of target firms.

What do you consider the burning issues in your field for the next five years and beyond?

I think piracy is one of the burning issues, and yet a lot of people still take it pretty casually. The challenge remains how best to protect content from being pirated while at the same time making it digitally available on multiple platforms and over the internet. Other issues are business issues. Like trying to control expenses on the feature side because the cost of making and launching feature films has become tremendous – for example, a reported $350 million to produce and launch Disney's recently released "Oz the Great and Powerful." Another issue is trying to work out the new distribution models given the existence of all the different platforms – theatrical screens, DVD, VOD, pay, free, cable television, laptop, iPad, cell phone and other hand-held devices. In the old days, movies would be made available only in tightly controlled windows, one venue at a time, over a series of months, even years. First in theaters for six months, then VHS/DVDs for six months, then after a year, pay TV, then free TV – and that's all changing now. Now, the time periods are collapsing, becoming much shorter. The challenge is to figure out how to preserve the income from one much shortened window without having it cannibalized by the next window.