Monthly Archives: May 2017

Don Engel died at the age of 84, an entertainment attorney representing a big pop star

Don Engel had only a small law firm in Los Angeles — just two or three attorneys in addition to him and his wife. But a phone call from Engel could strike fear among the loftiest executives in the music business.

Engel, who represented some of the biggest pop stars of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, was a fierce, tireless and some say overbearing fighter on behalf of clients who wanted to revise or cancel their recording contracts. Among his clients were hit makers Olivia Newton-John, Donna Summer, Don Henley and the band Boston.

“He was a force,” said entertainment industry lawyer Russell Frackman, who went up against Engel several times in legal fights. “There are not many lawyers in this area, or any area, where just the fact that one man was involved would cause anxiety on the other side. He was fearless.”

Engel, who later in his career represented artists such as Luther Vandross, Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones and the Dixie Chicks in various battles, is credited with helping change the balance of power in the industry, giving more of it to artists.

“In many important ways, what we have come to call the artist rights movement in the U.S. started with Don Engel’s representation of artists against record companies who overreached,” said entertainment attorney Chris Castle. “Just knowing that Don Engel was a phone call away had a certain civilizing effect on our business. Whether they know it or not, both superstars and new artists alike benefit from his groundbreaking representation.”

Engel, 84, died Jan. 15 in a hospital in Redwood City, Calif. He had been battling leukemia for 17 years, said his wife, Judy.

The Engels had moved to Northern California so their physician son, Gregory, could oversee his father’s care. Until about two years ago, Don Engel was still representing clients.

Despite his pugnaciousness, many of the lawyers who did battle with Engel ended up not only admiring him, but also becoming good friends. “It was clear Don loved what he was doing,” Frackman said. “It’s one of the reasons he was so good at it.”

Friendship with Engel was probably not as popular among industry executives or judges who had to deal with him in court. “He would never back down in the face of any judge,” said attorney Mark Passin, who joined the Engel firm just out of law school. “There was one case where the judge told him to bring his toothbrush the next morning, implying that if he didn’t stop arguing a point, he would be found in contempt of court and go to jail.”

Engel didn’t make excuses for his work demeanor. “This is not a gentleman’s business,” he told the Los Angeles Daily Journal in 1985. “This is a cutthroat business where nobody gives you anything.”

Donald Engel was born Dec. 11, 1929, in the Bronx. He graduated from City College of New York and served as an intelligence officer in the Army during the Korean War. He enrolled in New York University’s law school upon his return.

He established a practice in New York focusing on the publishing industry before moving to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s and switching to show business law. He viewed the situation in his new home city with typical candor.

“We found the caliber of attorney in the entertainment business to be far below what we were used to,” he told the Daily Journal. “We don’t even want to be called entertainment attorneys, because most of their emphasis is on the entertainment rather than the attorney part.”

In L.A., Engel earned a reputation for using novel tactics to spring pop artists from their contracts. One of his arguments was derived from the so-called seven-year-statute in California law that states some contracts can’t be extended past seven years. It was used successfully in the 1944 court case that allowed actress Olivia de Havilland to break her contract with Warner Bros. Engel argued, successfully at times, that it should also apply to record contracts.

He was able to pave the way for Donna Summer to go from Casablanca Records to Geffen Records, Sammy Hagar from Capitol Records to Geffen, Teena Marie from Motown Records to CBS and Boston from CBS to MCA.

Engel’s business got a boost in the early 1990s when superstar contracts skyrocketed, including a $40-million deal for Janet Jackson and $65 million-plus for her brother Michael. Performers who wanted to keep up with the Jacksons called Engel.

“I’m swamped,” he said in a 1991 Los Angeles Times interview. “In the last couple of months, I’ve been retained by eight artists and entered discussions with about 10 others. What we’re talking about here is major artists trying to break contracts.”

The extra work probably didn’t much faze him — Engel was known widely as a workaholic. “If you sent Don a letter that was one page long,” Frackman said, “the next day you might get a five-page reply. Nothing got past him.”

The onset of leukemia eventually forced him to slow down. The music industry changed greatly from when he was most active, in large part because of the Internet. But Judy Engel said he would have embraced the digital challenges. “I told him,” she said, ‘”you would have really enjoyed this.'”

In addition to his wife and son Gregory, Engel is survived by another son, Stephen; daughters Jacqueline Leibsohn and Laura Engel; and seven grandchildren.

Chief talks NBC Entertainment Leno, NFL and Peter Pan

NBC doesn’t want to say goodbye to “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno just yet.

“I’m very much hoping we will enter into a new relationship with him after ‘The Tonight Show,’ ” said NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt at the semiannual Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena on Sunday.

Leno, who ends his run as “Tonight Show” host on Feb. 6 (with Billy Crystal as his final guest), has kept mum on his future plans, including whether he will seek another TV hosting gig. Greenblatt said he’d like to have Leno host specials for NBC down the road.

Jimmy Fallon, host of NBC’s “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” will debut as host of “The Tonight Show” on Feb. 17, in the midst of its coverage of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The network hopes that the bigger audiences for the Games will mean increased sampling for Fallon.

Greenblatt also said the network has an appetite for more football. The National Football League is soliciting offers for a potential Thursday night package of games. Greenblatt declined to comment on whether NBC, which is home to Sunday night football, had made an offer but said “we’d love to have more NFL games,” and “Thursday night games might be really interesting to us.”

One reason Thursday football would appeal to NBC is that its comedies on that night have been struggling. The network has programmed sitcoms on Thursday for decades but given its recent challenges, Greenblatt didn’t rule out going in a different direction next season. Expensive and heavily promoted new comedies starring Michael J. Fox and Sean Hayes have failed to click with viewers, much to the frustration of the network.

“We’re really unhappy that we can’t find an audience for them,” said Greenblatt, adding that this spring the network will “have to get in the scheduling room and make some hard decisions.”

An easy decision for NBC to make was to greenlight another live musical after the surprising success of “The Sound of Music Live” last month. Greenblatt said NBC would take another crack with “Peter Pan” in December. Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who made “The Sound of Music Live” are also on board for “Peter Pan.”

NBC also said it had signed “Parks and Recreation” star Amy Poehler to a production deal and is developing a sitcom she will produce starring Natasha Lyonne (“Orange is the New Black”) as a woman who works in a senior care facility.

Networks are typically obsessed with shows about younger people, but NBC executives said this comedy will give it a chance to broaden its casting and appeal to older viewers as well.

“I’d like to see them represented,” Greenblatt said.

Other new shows in development include “State of Affairs” starring former “Grey’s Anatomy” star Katherine Heigl as a CIA liaison for the White House. The network also has a limited series in the works inspired by Frank L. Baum’s books called “Emerald City.”

Coming off a strong fall in which its average prime time audience was up 10%, Greenblatt said NBC is unlikely to change the way it develops new shows. Responding to a question regarding Fox’s plans to abandon so-called pilot season — the three month ritual in which networks frantically order scripts, hire actors and shoot trial episodes — Greenblatt said he is happy with the current model.

Los Angeles County entertainment jobs down 7% from 2007

The entertainment industry in Los Angeles County has lost more than 9,000 jobs since 2007.

The data comes from a report by Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. that measures the scope of California’s entire “creative economy,” which includes industries such as architecture, digital media and fashion along with entertainment.

Creative industries contributed $273 billion to the California economy, accounting for nearly 8% of the gross state product in 2012.

In Los Angeles County, entertainment alone accounted for 132,900 jobs in 2012, down nearly 6.6% over the previous five years.

Within the industry, movie and video production — which accounts for the bulk of entertainment employment — posted the biggest decline, down by 7,800 jobs, or 7.2%, since 2007.

Some of the reduction is because of the big recession during the time period, along with the impact of other states offering tax breaks to film companies.

But three areas represented bright spots in the same period. Post-production services added 530 positions, while radio stations grew by 350 jobs and television broadcasting boasted an added 1,700 jobs.

However, cable broadcasting, motion picture distribution and sound recording all fell over the five-year window.

The report was more upbeat about the next few years. Direct employment by the entertainment industry in the county is expected to grow by about 3% through 2017.

CBS entertainment head Nina Tassler extended the deal until 2017

CBS’ entertainment chief, Nina Tassler, has earned a bigger title — chairman of CBS Entertainment — and a new employment contract that will keep her at the network through 2017.

Tassler will continue to be responsible for all of CBS’ entertainment programming, including prime-time, daytime and late-night hours. She also will head program development for all genres, including comedy, drama, reality, mini-series and other TV specials.

Tassler will oversee scheduling, research, advertising, promotions, publicity and business affairs for entertainment programming matters, but those division chiefs will continue to report CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves.

“There are very few executives with her track record of consistently achieving high-level success in all forms of entertainment programming,” Moonves said in a statement Thursday announcing Tassler’s new contract.

Tassler also will continue to report to Moonves. The two executives have worked together for 25 years, dating back to their days at Lorimar Television and, later, Warner Bros. Television, where they developed and produced “ER.”

Over the years, Tassler has helped nurture some of the most popular shows in television, including “The Big Bang Theory,” “How I Met Your Mother,” and the critically acclaimed “The Good Wife.” Earlier, when she served as senior vice president of drama development,  Tassler helped shepherd “CSI” and “NCIS” to the screen.

Tassler joined CBS in August 1997 as vice president for drama programming for CBS Productions. The following year, she moved over to the CBS network as senior vice president of drama development and became the network’s entertainment president in 2003.

Tassler also serves on the board for the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation and for Jewish Family Services. She is a member of the Board of Trustees for Boston University. She graduated from Boston University after majoring in theater.

She began her career as an assistant at the Roundabout Theater Company in New York while waiting tables and auditioning for acting roles. She got a call back for the play “Come Back, Little Sheba,” but failed to land the part. However, she excelled in program development.