Money, Power, Glory: An Interview with Linda Lichter
Before I understood what my mother, entertainment lawyer Linda Lichter, did for work, I knew she was powerful. When she’d work from home, I’d listen carefully to her phone conversations while she told the voice on the other end of the phone what he could do with his offer (needless to say I didn’t have to wait to learn curse words from my peers). She took me to movie screenings and pointed out her name creeping up the screen at the end of the long list of credits. She hadn’t made the movie, she explained, but she had made it happen.
For more than three decades, my mother has been negotiating deals for some of the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood. Her clients include directors like Mark Webb (The Amazing Spiderman), Tarsem Singh (The Fall), Susanna Bier (In A Better World), Tamra Davis (Half Baked), and Mark Forster (World War Z); screenwriters like Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, Maleficent) and Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean); producers Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger (Cold Mountain, Little Miss Sunshine) and Bill Prady (Big Bang Theory); and phenoms such as Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity), film collective Court 13 (Beasts of the Southern Wild), and Quvenzhane Wallace (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Annie).
A long-time veteran of the film festival circuit, she often helps independent filmmakers find financing and negotiates distribution deals. Her success has secured her a perennial place on various Hollywood power lists, those dubious yet influential indicators of clout. But she’s also a big film geek, equally fascinated by Maya Deren and Pixar. She is known for her ferocity and shrewdness in battle, her passion for cinema, and her intense loyalty for her clients, whom she also describes as her friends. I’m lucky that that I get to call her my mother, not just because she’s one of the smartest, funniest, indefatigable people I’ve ever known, but also because it means that she’ll always be on my side.
On a recent visit home to Los Angeles, I sat down to talk to her about what it means to be described as a powerful woman.
When was the first time you were on some kind of power list and what was it?
There was this glossy magazine that covered art and culture in LA that is now defunct [New West, published by New York Media] and around 1985 they profiled four upcoming entertainment lawyers. And they interviewed me.
Do you remember the picture they took?
I had a couch in my office that we still have — it’s an aqua chaise in a kind of freeform shape, with rounded edges and nubby fabric, very kind of atomic, ‘50s-looking. They had me sitting in the middle of the couch in a skirt and heels with my legs crossed, leaning forward. And the picture was basically me…and legs. It was extremely embarrassing.
Who were the other lawyers? Where they men?
Yeah, dudes in suits.
When I was growing up it always seemed like the most stressful aspect of these lists, for you, was figuring out how to get them to use a good picture.
I’ve asked you to try to take a good one a few times. But typically, my picture’s not there. A couple times on the lawyer list they’ve taken my picture. I don’t know if it’s because I’m willing to do it, or they want to feature one of my clients, or they need some women.
How did being on that first list make you feel?
It was an out of body experience, mostly. I think even people who didn’t bring it up to me had seen it. Everyone read the magazine.
Do you think it got you clients? Did people come in and say, “Oh, I saw your legs in the magazine…”
[Laughs.] Everything contributes to the possibility that someone thinks you’re worth doing business with.
What was your perception of your own power at that time?
That’s a really complicated question because I was a partner in the firm, in my mid-30’s — -young for a lawyer — -and I had already a bunch of interesting business. But I had a very difficult time there. Part of it was that they were very sexist. They didn’t really support me and they always made me feel like I was dumb. They had already treated me badly when I had you. [They accused her of trying to trick them by getting pregnant very soon after she was hired.] I didn’t feel particularly powerful at that firm, but I had a pretty strong sense of myself, and my attitude was, I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do. I always felt that I would have as interesting business or as much business as the male lawyers that I knew and they would still be perceived as more powerful.
Why? Is being a man just so suggestive of “power” that it somehow conveys actual powerfulness?
I think that’s probably true to some extent. But I think some of it had to do with who people were friends with. The truth is, I had a husband and child and I couldn’t go out to every party. The guys who could go out and go to Las Vegas and chase girls together formed alliances that I couldn’t be a part of. We had our little “women entertainment lawyers” network, which was actually pretty cool, but it wasn’t at the same level and we didn’t hang out quite that way.
It’s so weird that going on a pleasure trip to Las Vegas would somehow make someone more powerful in Hollywood.
The entertainment business, like every business, is about networking. And that particular network was one that I could never really enter, so my attitude was that I was just going to do the work.
Did the “women in entertainment law” or “women in film” groups that you joined compensate for the boys club in some way?
Well, we weren’t hanging out and making quilts. We had meetings and got to talk to each other. I made some really strong friendships. Some of those people who I started out with became very important. Remember my friend Helen Hahn? When I met her she was a contract lawyer at ABC. And she rose through the ranks and became a very significant person. [Hahn retired from COO at DreamWorks in 2004.] And it’s not like I would call on her to do me favors, but it’s always good in my business to be able to say that you know the person who has the ability to make the decision, or who can help you get through the problem.
What function does it serve at all to be on a power list?
People do look at them. My clients love it when I am on those lists because it makes them feel like they are being represented by someone who is powerful.
But isn’t that a kind of “snake-eating-its-tail” situation? You’re powerful because of your clients, and they ask you to represent them because you’re powerful.
A lot of things in Hollywood are “snake-eating-its-tail” situations.
What’s the highest you ever made it on a power list?
Not very high. You know, Eric Weissmann, my erstwhile senior partner and mentor, used to say, “Power is the ability to get your phone calls returned.” And I think you can get your phone calls returned because you represent a client they want to do business with, or you have a prior relationship, or they have heard your name. The other aspect is that you become…notorious.
Notorious! Notorious L.I.N.D.A.?
Yeah, because they’ve seen you on a list or they’ve seen you in the trades or whatever it is. The other complicated aspect is that when you put yourself out there in any context — -when you put your name on a movie or a short story or a book, and it gets published, it’s out there — -your name then has an identity separate from you. I’m still freaked out when people call my firm “the Lichter firm.” It’s a strange thing because it’s not really me, it’s just my name. The person who invented Pepsi-Cola probably feels weird about that, too.
Poor Mr. Coke! But it is true; it’s very dissociative. I think about this in relation to my own byline or credit. Your name is you but it’s also this idea of you. And you want people to know about your work and know your name but at the same time it makes you feel very vulnerable because they are free to judge what your name represents.
It’s really weird.
Do you generally think there is any logic to the power list rankings that isn’t political?
There was one year where I was higher than Oprah, and I was like, “What?!” So that was clearly an insane list.
You usually appear at the end of the lists, like at position #99 or #100. Is that positive or patronizing?
You know what? I don’t really care. But I do know that those female executives who are really important senior executives at the studios, whether it’s Amy Pascal or Stacy Sneider, don’t like not being number one. Maybe they are number one because they care about that kind of thing. That’s another snake eating its tail aspect to things.
On the other hand, there are plenty of law firms and lawyers in Hollywood more powerful than I am, for sure.
What makes them more powerful than you?
If you’re representing Jeffrey Katzenberg and DreamWorks, you’re going to have way more power than I am representing some director.
But you represent a lot of top directors and writers.
There’s also kind of a hierarchy. If you represent actors, you are more powerful because the actors are perceived as being more significant, even though they really don’t have much to do with making the movie.
Because having a hot actor can means the movie gets made.
Yeah. So as fickle as that may be, it can create the perception of power.
What’s your current ranking?
The only “numbered” lists I’m on now are the “women in entertainment” lists, which are really irritating.
Because there’s a kind of ghettoization. For example, if you look at the Fortune list of people in the media, there aren’t too many women on it. So it feels like “women-only” lists are trying to make up for a bigger problem in the business.
What do you think when people write about you and use terms like “hyper-aggressive”, like The Hollywood Reporter did in their 2011 Power 100 list?
There’s a kind of sexism to that. I always talk about that famous Sophie Tucker joke that Bette Midler adapted. She said, “They called Henry Kissinger an asshole when he dropped bombs on Cambodia. But they call a woman a cunt if she puts them on hold.” Men do not like women to tell them what to do or to yell at them. Either it threatens their masculinity or reminds them of their mothers or something…So even if you just say, “Here’s what I need in this deal,” they think you’re hyper-aggressive. There are people who are much more hyper-aggressive than I am, male and female. So I don’t worry about it too much. I don’t really think I’m aggressive, I think I am obsessed with having people get a fair deal.
But when they write something like that do you read it as a slight or is it just part of the territory?
I used to care. But you have to decide: do you want people to like you? Of course you do. But is it more important as a lawyer, forget about as a person, that they respect you? Or that they are afraid of you? Yeah. The people in this business that are powerful are, to some extent, the ones people are afraid of. Look at Scott Rudin, for example. He happens to have great taste, and he’s very effective. There are a lot of people who are tough, who are “bully types:” the Harvey Weinsteins, the Joel Silvers.
Do you think Hollywood lends itself to those outsize egos because it is an industry built on personal taste and flash and bluffing on big bets?
I think entrepreneurs who are self-made people can be more like that. And the truth is that in Hollywood, people are living by their wits. So they have to find an effective way of getting what they want. And if you’ve got the capacity to be both smart and scary, you probably can get what you want.
Hollywood had always attracted people who also had very strong sense of their own talents and their own importance — whether they actually had those talents or not.
That seems like one of the chief ways Hollywood embodies the American dream. There’s this kind of amnesiac belief that you somehow start over and still rise to the top, regardless of what came before.
No question. Even if you’ve been a success and then a failure in Hollywood you can still be resurrected with the right project. You can call it a meritocracy but it’s also kind of a crapshoot.
Would you tell someone who started out that it was important to be on a power list?
You can’t write a screenplay because you want to win an Academy Award. Or because you want to make $100,000. You have to write a screenplay because you’re into what you’re doing. What happens after that is in the hands of the gods.
A version of this interview appears in Filmme Fatales Issue No. 5.
Rose Lichter-Marck is a journalist, screenwriter, and photographer. She chronicles her love of unfamiliar dogs and other natural wonders here.