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By Malina Saval
Entertainment attorney Craig Emanuel, Variety’s 2023 Power of Law honoree, remembers the day he got a phone call asking if he would be interested in meeting with Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson.
“I knew that they were meeting with a lot of lawyers around town, and I really didn’t think we were going to get selected,” says Emanuel. “A lot of the other law firms were boutique entertainment firms that had huge client lists.”
“Months went by, and I thought, you know, nothing’s happening,” Emanuel continues. “And then Richard Lovett, president of CAA, who reps Tom and Rita, called me one evening on the phone. I was at dinner with my partners, and Richard said, ‘I’ve got some good news, you have a new client.’”
Now sitting in the brightly lit expanse of Paul Hastings’ soaring Century City offices, where Emanuel heads up the renowned global law firm’s entertainment and media division, it’s clear he’s being humble, underselling his reputation as top-tier Hollywood counsel. In addition to Hanks and his production shingle Playtone, Emanuel, who recently marked his fifth year as partner at Paul Hastings, boasts a heady clientele: super-showrunner Ryan Murphy, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, MSG Entertainment, writer-producer Tony Gilroy, Mandalay Pictures, Cirque du Soleil and fellow Aussie Paul Hogan — to name just a few.
“I think sometimes attorneys go in and pitch themselves — not about what they do, but what their competitors don’t do. I think that’s a mistake,” notes Emanuel. “I think you have to lead from strength as to who you are.”
An unassailable sense of self has long shaped Emanuel’s professional and personal sojourn, starting with his first day of school in America.
It was September 1972 and the Australian 13-year-old, fresh off his bar mitzvah that June, had moved with his family from Melbourne to Rumson, N.J., where his father, a corporate transactional attorney, was launching an international real estate and investment company.
“I rode my bicycle to school, and I had a bike that was made by an Australian company called Moulton,” remembers Emanuel of that inaugural eighth grade day. “And there’s this star on the front of the bike. And I pull into the school and one of the school kids came up to me and said, ‘You’re riding a Jew bike.’ And we got into a fight. My initial response was to try and be clever. I pointed out that there’s a difference between a five-pointed star and six-pointed star. He didn’t find that particularly funny. And he came up and he hit me. And I hit him back. He hit me in the mouth, and I slugged him in the nose. I ended up getting a root canal on my front tooth. And that was my very first day of school in America.”
While Emanuel’s parents were, he recalls, “alarmed,” the remainder of that school year passed largely without incident. Reflecting upon the event decades later, Emanuel recalls Rumson as having had “a fairly decent Jewish community.” But the attack stuck with him.
oday, Emanuel remains, in his own words, “reasonably outspoken and honest about my views — politically, religiously and otherwise.” In addition to his bustling legal career, he is a strident human rights activist, devoting ample time to such philanthropic endeavors as the Black Jewish Entertainment Alliance, the March on Washington Film Festival and the Faith and Politics Institute, a nonprofit that was led for more than 20 years by the late congressman John Lewis. Emanuel also serves as legal counsel to the Sundance Institute and volunteers with Chrysalis, a charity providing jobs and clothing.
Rodriguez, Emanuel’s client for some three decades, notes that outside of business matters, the attorney is “always thoughtful enough to just check in on you as a friend.”
“Craig works hard and gets results, but he’s also kind, decent, fair and a joy to work with — even for those on the other side of the table,” continues Rodriguez. “I think that’s key to representation. You really want someone that shares your work ethic and ideals, and Craig truly represents you.”
From “Glee” to “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” Murphy is a series creator jugger-naut, but the multihyphenate was just starting out when Emanuel inked him as a client.
“One of my most indelible moments with Craig was my very first — when he signed on as my lawyer before I had even sold my first script, ‘Why Can’t I Be Audrey Hepburn?’ to Steven Spielberg,” says Murphy. “He was one of the very first, if not the first, people to believe I could be something. His belief in me and what I could accomplish has always been very moving and important.”
However, Emanuel’s professional trajectory was a circuitous one. In 1975, after a two-year stretch in the States, Emanuel’s family returned to Australia, where he was faced with a choice: What career path did he wish to pursue?
“I never really ever wanted to be a lawyer,” Emanuel admits. “But, you know, you’re 16 and you’ve got to make a decision. In Australia, in those days, you go straight from high school to whatever it is that you’re going to do, and I didn’t want to be a doctor, and I didn’t want to be a scientist. Law was a five-year program. And I thought, well, having a law degree is not a bad thing.”
And so, “very, very early” in life Emanuel enrolled at Melbourne’s Monash University. When he was 19, his father, at just 44, died of brain cancer. Halfway through getting his degree, Emanuel decided to take a couple of months off to travel — and so the young law student embarked on a backpacking excursion through Europe. “I ended up living in Ibiza for a period in the late ’70s and early ’80s, which was a lot of fun,” he says.
Emanuel returned to law school and, in his final year, penned a thesis exploring taxation on investment in the Australian film industry, a research paper that helped introduce landmark legislation to create tax incentives for the country’s film industry. “I became somewhat of an authority in that space, participating in conversations with government representatives,” says Emanuel. “I watched the legislation go from being a draft bill to being introduced.”
But in 1985, the itch to explore the world again — and the entertainment industry — embedded itself in Emanuel. This time, he headed for Los Angeles.
“My thought process was that I was going to learn something about the industry, take it back to Australia and apply that knowledge and do something in the film space there,” says Emanuel. “I arrived in Los Angeles in February 1985. I really don’t know a lot of people. I wasn’t licensed to practice law. I didn’t have a visa to work. I had no plan at all.”
Screen International editor Elspeth Tavares, who gave Emanuel a job as an executive assistant in the magazine’s LA office during his brief California foray in 1980, helped secure Emanuel a place to stay.
“I worked as a waiter in a restaurant. I drove a graveyard shift as a limo driver. I played piano three nights a week at Chaya Brasserie,” says Emanuel, who, following in his father’s footsteps, studied classical music from age 4.
At one point during that youthful period in Hollywood, Emanuel landed work on a Roger Corman film, making $20 a day to complete tasks ranging from script rewrites to casting. “I don’t remember the exact name of the film, but there was a widow and a priest character,” says Emanuel. “The script was about a bunch of kids who went to Mexico on vacation, got kidnapped and put to work on a pot farm. Then two of their friends dress up as a nun and a priest and drive down on motorcycles to rescue them.”
Emanuel’s mother was “incredibly supportive,” but Emanuel began to doubt what exactly he was doing with his life. “I struggled,” he says. “I thought, this is great, but this is not what I came to do. And, in those days, there’s no email, no internet, no cell phones. You would write letters and patiently wait for the phone to ring or for someone to reply. The highlight of my day was watching ‘Perry Mason’ and ‘Mission: Impossible.’ I started to think, ‘Have I made the wrong decision? Should I go back to Australia?’”
At 25, rootless and with “no obligations to anybody,” Emanuel realized that what he needed to succeed was “an entirely different attitude.” So he shifted tactics. “I made it a point that anytime I would meet someone, I wouldn’t leave the meeting without getting a referral to somebody else,” he says. “I started to build a network. And I was writing to a bunch of law firms saying, ‘Look, here are my qualifications — give me a job.’”
Nobody responded except for one attorney: Edward Rubin, then-partner at formidable entertainment firm Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp. Rubin didn’t have a job to offer Emanuel, but what he did have was connections.
“I go down to [Rubin’s] office, and he says, ‘I’m going to give you the names of 10 lawyers, and you should write to them and say I’ve suggested that you reach out,’” recalls Emanuel of that fortuitous meeting. “In his office, there were pictures of Nixon and, I think, Kennedy. I think he may have even driven across the country with Nixon. It was an incredible act of kindness.”
Eventually, one of the contacts to whom Emanuel wrote connected him with Scottish entertainment attorney-turned-producing mogul Nigel Sinclair. Sinclair had just moved from London to Los Angeles, where he was opening the West Coast office of his firm, Sinclair Tenenbaum.
“I called [Nigel] that night and I said, ‘Give me a job, pay me anything, and I’ll make it worth your while,’” says Emanuel. “And he said, ‘Do you have a suit?’”
Emanuel did not have a suit, but he ran out and bought one, got a haircut and met Sinclair at his office the next day. Sinclair offered Emanuel a position — “the equivalent of being a paralegal,” he explains — sponsored him for a visa and paid for him to study for the California State Bar, which Emanuel passed on the first try.
Emanuel soon established himself as one of the industry’s preeminent entertainment attorneys, focusing on everything from cutting production deals to securing intellectual property for clients. In 1985, well before he was a known commodity outside of Australia, Hogan retained Emanuel and Sinclair to negotiate the U.S. distribution deal of “Crocodile Dundee.” After Sinclair dissolved his practice to produce films full time, Emanuel spent the next 20 years as partner at multiservice firm Loeb & Loeb.
Over the past four decades, Emanuel has represented high-profile talent ranging from Julie Delpy and Jennifer Beals to music mogul Clive Davis and Oscar-winning producer Cathy Schulman (“Crash”). He also reps a slate of celebrated international filmmakers, including Israeli writer-director Samuel Maoz, who helmed the critically acclaimed 2017 drama “Foxtrot,” and Palestinian filmmaker Hany Aby-Assad, who directed the 2006 Academy Award-nominated drama “Paradise Now.”
A firm believer in the power of international discourse, Emanuel, an advisory board member of Creative Community for Peace, a nonprofit that promotes artists as a pathway to peace, reps rising and established filmmakers from all over the world, including Egyptian, Israeli, Palestinian and Iranian artists.
“We are fortunate to have Craig’s insight, guidance and support in our critical work of countering the rising tide of antisemitism and anti-Israel activism,” says Ari Ingel, director of Creative Community for Peace.
Several years back, recognizing an oppor-tunity to meet “leaders from the Arab film community,” Emanuel accepted an invite to teach a master class at the Beirut International Film Festival. The festival coincided with Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Emanuel found a way to observe the high holiday while in Lebanon — not the easiest thing to do since an estimated 30 Jews live in Lebanon and there are no public services held at the capital city’s one remaining synagogue. But bridging
cultural divides has always been one of Emanuel’s key passions.
“To be able to engage in a conversation about how we can use media and entertainment as a means of finding commonality, I’ll have that conversation anywhere,” says Emanuel. “It was an amazing experience.”
Emanuel, who makes his home in Los Angeles with his wife, producer Deborah Zipser — he has two grown children from a previous marriage — is not only a powerhouse in the legal field, but, perhaps even more importantly, is known for being one of the industry’s most likable and trustworthy individuals.
“A constant over the 30 years working with Craig has been that whenever I’m about to do a deal and inform someone he is my attorney, it’s always met with a ‘Oh, I love Craig! We can figure this out!’” says Rodriguez.
But as dedicated as he is to his career, wanderlust has never fully left Emanuel. There was a moment six or seven years ago when the seasoned attorney pondered departing the legal arena “for something else.” Then Paul Hastings came along. And it was, as they say, an “attractive” offer Emanuel could not refuse. Among those perks was getting to work with attorneys Mickey Mayerson and Susan Williams, Emanuel’s co-chairs at Paul Hastings’ entertainment and media division.
“The truth of the matter is, at the end of the day, you want to be around the people that you enjoy working with, and I couldn’t imagine not working with those people,” says Emanuel. “And sometimes, when the train starts to leave the station, it’s not easy to get off the platform. But, as it turned out, my business has thrived at Paul Hastings. I spend time doing what I love — which is finding business and doing deals.”