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Law Firm Lands Part In Local Film Scene

By Alison Lee Satake, posted Oct 14, 2011
Attorney Jim O'Brien of Raleigh-based law firm Poyner Spruil in the firm's new Wilmington office.

Raleigh-based law firm, Poyner Spruil has established its first office in Wilmington. And it is the first law office located on the EUE/Screen Gems Studios lot.

“With the resurgence of the film industry in North Carolina and especially in Wilmington, we saw this as an opportunity,” said Jim O’Brien, head of the firm’s Entertainment Law Group, where represents film and television producers, music artists and others in the entertainment industry.

O’Brien, a self-proclaimed live music lover, received his undergraduate degree from UNC Chapel Hill and his law degree from U.C. Berkeley.

“I’ve always really liked music, live music. I’ve never played an instrument. I can’t carry a tune. So I wanted to be a part of an industry that could impact millions of people, but really didn’t have any artistic talents,” he said.

He worked as a lawyer in Los Angeles in the music and film industries for a few years. In 1994, he returned to North Carolina and joined Poyner Spruill. At that time, he decided to start a practice representing independent filmmakers in North Carolina.

“Now we’ve built that up to one of the largest entertainment practices in the southeast,” he said. The 110-attorney firm has five lawyers in the Entertainment Law Group.

They most commonly write and negotiate contracts, such as the contracts filmmakers use to employ a director, writer, talent and crew.

“A lot of my independent film clients don’t have much of a business background, so we can come in when they are setting up their production, we can help them set up their legal entities like LLCs, negotiate their contracts, help them with their financing. So we can do all of the corporate and finance work for them as well,” he said.

The large studios that produce major motion pictures employ their own legal staff. But, smaller production companies and independent films do not. That’s the niche O’Brien and his team aim to fill.

“The definition of independent film is it doesn’t take studio money, so financing sources have to come outside the studio system. In a lot of respects, the film industry follows the economy as high net worth individuals’ bank accounts go up and down,” he said.

The recession has hit the independent film industry hard.

“The economy really affects how independent films get financed,” O’Brien said. “We’ve really seen it over the last couple years. High net worth individuals investing in films was abysmal from 2009, 2010 to this year,” he said. In comparison, his firm worked on 15 feature films in 2008, but this year they had three financed film clients.

Typically, he also helps filmmakers acquire the rights to the story or script, comply with Securities and Exchange Commission regulations when raising funds for a project, secure intellectual property protection and distribution.

“We have a lot of work in unscripted reality TV,” he said.

But, about 50 percent of O’Brien’s work is corporate.

“We’re also here to look for corporate work and healthcare clients and litigation and employment law and intellectual property law and real estate. Everything we do, we can do in Wilmington,” he said. He and his colleagues have had Wilmington clients for several years. They will schedule meetings with those clients in their one-room office on the film studio lot. As business grows, the firm may expand to a larger space.

“Although you can serve clients remotely, clients do like to see you. It shows commitment to the area,” O’Brien said. “It’s hard to network and go out and meet people if you’re not here.” Next month, the firm will sponsor the Filmmakers’ Luncheon as part of the Cucalorus Film Festival.

O’Brien is in the Wilmington office on Thursdays and works out of the Raleigh office the rest of the week. Poyner Spruill has satellite offices in Charlotte, Rocky Mount and Southern Pines. The Wilmington office is the newest brick and mortar location. O’Brien is in his fourth year serving on Gov. Perdue’s state film council.

So far, he has met with a few potential clients in the healthcare and software industries at the new satellite office at Screen Gems.

“There has been this great resurgence in production in Wilmington. So if there was one thing that brought us to Screen Gems rather than getting an office somewhere else, it was probably that,” he said.

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