In Their Words: Peter Morris (J.D. ’07) on Entertainment Law
Editor’s note: Peter Morris (J.D. ’07) became the executive vice president of the IMAX Entertainment unit and senior vice president of the overall corporation in June. He is the former vice president of business affairs and strategy at Funny or Die, where he worked for nearly six years. In this interview, he shares his experience at Funny or Die.
What got you interested in entertainment law?
My father, Bruce Morris, an attorney in Atlanta and 19-year adjunct professor at Georgia State Law, always said his biggest regret was not taking time off between college and law school to have an adventure. So when I graduated from college, he encouraged me to have some fun before going back to school or beginning a career.
I had illusions of being an actor, and so with virtually nothing more than a suitcase I headed to Los Angeles. It took all of five minutes to realize I was not a very good actor, but I was lucky and scored an internship a casting office at Disney. There I became fascinated with the process of actors being booked for the show: the casting process, marketing and promotion, negotiation, and drafting of contracts for the actors participating in the show each week.
What’s your day-to-day like at Funny or Die?
There is no such thing as a “typical day” at Funny Or Die! My purview extends to virtually everything the company does.
Some of the things my department handles are: negotiating and drafting agreements with the television networks, film studios, and financiers/partners for our productions and projects; negotiating and drafting “above-the-line” agreements with key talent, directors, and writers; production legal issues (ex: parody and fair use analysis, crew agreements, music clearances, etc.); distribution agreements for our content on every platform, network, and channel; sales and custom content-creation agreements for our interior sales team on branded entertainment deals with advertisers, our white-label commercial production company, Gifted Youth, or our political initiative, “Funny Or Die D.C.;” and all strategic partnership agreements for Funny Or Die (ex: early participation with Facebook in their Facebook Anthology and Facebook Suggested Ads Alpha programs, and the 20 city “Funny Or Die’s Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival” tour).
Additionally, as the general counsel, my office handles all the traditional things a company may need on the legal side such as: employment contracts for internal people; any urgent legal matter; HR issues; the real estate leases for all of our properties; corporate management; trademark; litigation; Digital Millennium Copyright Act compliance; privacy compliance; and any other weird thing you can think of … trust me we’ve seen it.
What are some funny things you’ve had to deal with on the job?
Tough call! How about a 58-thread email chain with Comedy Central debating whether Adam Devine could show a close up of a camel urinating on our television special, whether that might amount to animal cruelty, which would require animal trainers and the humane society, and if this might be a violation of the FCC regulations [P.S. We did it].
Or maybe it was figuring out what to do when the production team happened to “find abandoned at CBS” the David Letterman Late Show set. They told me, “We aren’t stealing it we are just giving it a new home (on the Chris Gethard Show) since it is so iconic.” [P.S. We did that, too].
Maybe… getting a Funny Or Die video accidentally into Saturday Night Live’s show [P.S. Not saying this happened, but it may have].
Learning that the comedians in the series “Drunk History” are really drunk — we actually require them to get hammered before and during filming — and then figuring out how to release them and care for their safety.
How often do you steer the creative team away from potential trouble?
Almost every piece of content we make is reviewed by the legal team, and it is extremely rare that we say “no.” Our goal is to help solve the legal problem and work with the creative team to come up with a suggestion that they like but still gives us the protection we need.
What’s the most exciting thing about your job?
I love to create new innovative businesses and I get to do that all the time. My favorite recent example is our Funny Or Die D.C. office, which is run by Brad Jenkins, the former associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. Essentially, it produces special comedic content campaigns in connection with political candidates, political parties, Super PACS and other politically motivated nonprofits.
Nothing like this previously existed in the political world before Funny Or Die, and working through the difficult campaign finance laws and regulatory issues to build this business was a ton of fun. Funny Or Die D.C. was responsible for a campaign that helped secure near unanimous Congressional passing of the Sexual Assault Survivors Rights Act, which is an incredibly important issue and no small feat in today’s political climate.
How has the growth of social media affected what you do?
Funny Or Die has almost 45 million followers across 18 social media platforms, and has always been at the forefront of not only using social media to market and promote content, but in creating original content for these platforms, so it is something we have always had to be very adept at handling because our business depends on it so heavily. I would like to think that some of our analysis and our process has defined “best practices” in the industry with regard to the legal issues companies face on social media.
How often do you laugh at work?
Every single day! Funny Or Die is exactly the type of environment you would think it is. For example, on Tuesdays they have “Office Standup,” which consists of a handful of up-and-coming comedians each doing a 10-minute routine in front of the whole office while we eat pizza and drink beer, streamed live on Facebook and Periscope.
Funny or Die isn’t a traditional media company — does that make a difference in your day to day?
Yes! I was Funny Or Die’s first in-house attorney, so I built process, practices and deal structures for what we do from scratch. I find that means we can be much more efficient, nimble, and creative in our deal making and process. We don’t have 50 years of precedent and eons of red tape to cut through. Funny Or Die has 27 television shows and specials, and produces hundreds of pieces of content every month. It’s a fast-paced and cutting edge environment where lawyers have to be comfortable trying things that in many cases have never been done before.
In dynamic places like Funny Or Die, lawyers have to be willing to make quick decisions as they arise, or you’ll suddenly turn around and realize your company has become “the old guys” who aren’t willing to take risks and try things.
What skills are most important in what you do?
Creative problem solving and tailoring a message to a broad range of recipients. Every week I am doing something I have never done before, and in many cases it’s something no one has ever done before, so understanding how to analyze it, assess the risk, and ultimately create a plan/solution is extremely important. Also, because we service such a vast array of people from all different walks of life (producers, editors, writers, lawyers, accountants, makeup artist, musicians, etc.) you have to learn how to express that message in different ways so it will resonate with your audience.
What changes do you foresee in entertainment law?
Almost every deal now spans across multiple platforms. It’s not just a simple TV deal anymore. It’s a new television show that was incubated by a social influencer on YouTube, who already has a “global deal” with Neutrogena, where special ancillary content is going to distributed on the network’s Snapchat Discover channel, with one episode streaming live on Facebook or Periscope, and a world premiere music video by the star seen before the next “Star Wars” in theaters.
Entertainment lawyers are having to adjust to being an expert in multi-platform distribution, and lawyers with a single specialty (ex: television marketing) are going to have a difficult time adjusting.
What are you most proud of?
Will Ferrell and Adam McKay (two of Funny or Die’s main principals) about a young American who was working in the United Arab Emirates and was being held in a maximum security prison. His crime was creating a short comedy video and posting it to YouTube. It was shortly after the Arab Spring, and the UAE had a new law against using social media. He was arrested and jailed without ever having set foot in a courtroom.
When a reporter asked his brother why he made a silly video, he answered that his brother was inspired by Funny or Die. We immediately went to work on a campaign to draw awareness to this young man’s plight. Shortly after, he was released. Many people and our government worked to secure his release, but the fact that Funny or Die was able to help is the thing I am most proud of in my time there.
You negotiated and drafted contractual agreements for the first ever show produced on the internet and aired on TV, “Quarterlife.” Tell us more about that.
When I moved to LA after law school it was the middle of the writers’ strike, where every television show and movie had been virtually shut down. It went on for months, and networks were desperate for new content. I had just joined an Internet start-up owned by two Hollywood heavyweights, Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, with a focus on producing the first high production value content for the Web. One series, “Quarterlife,” was so successful on our own site, MySpace (yes, that is correct “MySpace”… hello 2007), and YouTube that NBC bought it. We repackaged the short videos into full hour length shows and debuted it on NBC. I believe we set two records with that show and deal: (1) the most viewed Internet series in history at that time, and (2) the lowest rated debut in NBC’s entire history. A few months later the company went under. Moral: “Welcome to Hollywood, New Lawyer Kid.”
What class at Georgia State Law most helped you in what you do now?
How important is one’s reputation in entertainment law?
Long term for your career it’s the most important thing. There are plenty of jerks in Hollywood for sure, but for the most part the lawyers who — while they are intense, passionate, hard line advocates for their clients — are also good people willing to play it straight with you, are the ones who continue to earn more and more success in their careers.
I learned early on you want to negotiate and advocate for your client to the best of your ability, but you don’t want to make the other person bleed, because the next time you negotiate with that person they will remember and return the favor. The entertainment law community is so small you deal with the same people all the time.
What advice would you give to students considering a career in entertainment law?
No.1: It is a ton of fun. No. 2: It is extremely difficult to break in, and your route will likely be different from your classmates. If your experience is anything like mine, it is extremely unlikely you are going to get a job at a big firm with an entertainment department out here (ex: Loeb & Loeb), and since your aunt is not a partner at one of the powerful boutique entertainment law firms (ex: Hansen Jacobson) you need to get on the ground and be prepared to claw, scratch, and hustle!
There are only a few hundred entertainment lawyers. It’s an extremely small and tight-knit group, and it’s tough to get in. There are some entertainment lawyers in Atlanta and some in New York as well, but the majority of entertainment law worldwide is in Los Angeles. Take every single meeting you can. Don’t leave a meeting without asking that person to set up a meeting for you with a new person. Be prepared to work for free or less than a Starbucks barista (Yes, you read that part right!). After reading that if you are still serious, call me when you move to Los Angeles and I’ll help.