Three for Three: Entertainment Lawyers

Three for Three: Alumni in Entertainment

Three alumni working in entertainment -- Ronni Coulter '77, Bill Colitre '00 and Susan Ehring '09 (pictured clockwise from left) -- dish on their careers in Hollywood.

As the executive vice president of business affairs and administration for Sony Pictures Animation, Ronni Coulter ’77 oversees all legal and business affairs matters for the studio’s slate of animated and hybrid live-action/animation feature films and productions. 

1) Can you describe your journey toward entertainment law after graduating law school?

In 1983, I found myself facing the common dilemma of many young law school graduates: I had no real experience in the area I wanted to pursue, and the firms I was hoping to join  would not consider me without experience. A friend of mine told me about a job at Twentieth Century Fox Films in the merchandising  department. I was offered the job at the grand salary of about $20,000 per year, but I can honestly say that day was the most exciting day in my legal career. I worked in the merchandising world for about a year, and then I moved into film distribution and production. From there, I went into business affairs, where I have worked for almost 30 years.

2) What are some of the common challenges these days to completing the acquisition of an established worldwide property?

Studios like to develop films based on established brands, with huge name-recognition, and hopefully a built-in audience. The trade-off is that the studio has less leverage at the negotiating table, is forced to give up more rights, and has less control and less upside than it would have with a newly created franchise owned by the studio. The biggest issue to work out on many classic properties relates to merchandising.

3) What are the biggest differences between working on the business affairs side of live-action fare versus animation?

In animation, we try to have big-name stars voice our characters. Many of these stars are accustomed to receiving multi-million dollar deals for their services on live-action films. However, on an animated film, the actor will generally receive $10,000 per recording session with a five session guarantee. On the plus side, there is far less work to do in animation. In live action, major talent will usually participate in either gross receipts or net profits. In animation, however, there are no profit participants. From the studio’s point of view, it is much simpler to pay bonuses based on the box office. Also, because there are no back-end participants, there are no audits and far fewer lawsuits.

Bill Colitre ’00 serves as corporate counsel to Music Reports. He consults with clients regarding music licensing strategies. He negotiates with music licensors and rights-collecting societies in pursuit of those strategies.

1)  How did you get involved in the music business?

After graduating from the University of California, San Diego with a degree in communication in the mid ‘90s, I knew I wanted to work in the music business, but wasn’t sure how. I got a job at a great independent record store and an internship in the alternative marketing department at Capitol Records. Plus, I read every book on the business in the Santa Monica public library. The books taught me that there were three ways to be successful in the business: be a great talent in music, in sales or in law. Since my music chops are purely amateur and I’m not great at sales, I decided to go to law school.

3) Are there specific people or experiences during your time at Loyola that had a significant preparatory impact on the work you do today?

Professor Jay Dougherty and I got to Loyola around the same time, and he has directly  influenced and supported my career ever since. While I was president of Loyola’s Entertainment and Sports Law Society, Professor Dougherty served as our faculty advisor, provided encouragement and made introductions to speakers who helped us develop an excellent series of panel events. His clear lectures and willingness to pursue students’ hypotheticals in real depth were instrumental in helping me earn the American Jurisprudence award in Copyright. Professor Dougherty’s first entertainment-law symposium at Loyola was focused on digital music distribution, and more than any single event during law school set me firmly on my career path.

3) How are changes in technology affecting you and the rest of the music business?

People point to Napster as the watershed technology that drained music profits. I point to the fact that about three years before Napster emerged, every new computer began to ship standard with a CD drive. That was the technology that began irrevocably undermining the scarcity on which the economics of the recorded music business were perched. The hyper-efficient distribution of music may have radically deflated the economics of recorded music, but it has also led to a host of positive effects for consumers. We watch daily as the rights-collecting societies are forced to provide higher levels of service, transparency and good governance to artists and composers than at any time in the last century. At Music Reports, we combine database technology with music business affairs experience to help push toward a more independent existence for musicians.

In her role as director of business and legal affairs for FishBowl Worldwide Media, Susan  Ehring ’09 helps lead a next-generation studio that develops properties for film, television, digital platforms and brands by partnering with marketers, digital companies and ad agencies in addition to the Hollywood creative community.

1) How did you get involved in the world of TV production?

I started in television shortly after college as an executive assistant to the head of a new cable channel at Fox called Fuel TV. I was only the eighth employee! At a start-up, you get an amazing opportunity to be part of every piece of the company, and I was in the control booth at 4 a.m. when the channel was launched and eventually transitioned from assistant to coordinating the channel’s international content distribution over five continents. It was great exposure to the business of television, and it is where I became inspired to go to law school. I wanted to be part of the negotiations and deal making. I decided law school would provide me with the best tools.

2) What are some of the unique challenges and opportunities that YouTube presents to you and your company?

YouTube has three hours of video uploaded a minute with millions of subscribers and advertisers. We operate a content ID program through YouTube that recognizes clips from our previously produced content and claims  videos that have been misappropriated or posted mistakenly by parties that have previously released their rights to us. We are then able to collect the advertising revenue generated from the various clips. That revenue generation didn’t exist before YouTube. The challenge of YouTube for production companies today is how to make new content that connects with fans and how to build a subscriber base that will generate enough revenue to be profitable. Successful channels bring in more than $1 million a year, but it’s not easily achieved. While some view it as a challenge to traditional television, it is not as of yet. 

3) How did your Loyola education inform your career?

I was an evening student at Loyola and continued to work while attending school. I felt lucky to have the experience of taking what I learned in the classroom back to my workplace and vice versa. Professor Dougherty’s Entertainment Law course was a great introduction to the many issues involved in entertainment law, and it was also very thorough on the major cases. I have never had anyone mention an entertainment law case with which I was unfamiliar. Lee Straus’s class was an excellent overview of the television business. I was also part of the inaugural class of the London Summer International Intellectual Property Institute. It was a fantastic experience and provided good insight into the multi-faceted issues of international intellectual property.