Alumni Q&A: Jonathan Gardner '96 Practices Law in Show Business
You might find the name Jonathan Gardner, a 1996 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, listed as executive producer on the next film you watch. But that role is only part of what keeps him busy these days.
Gardner, along with Jeff Cohen, co-founded the firm Cohen Gardner in Beverly Hills, California, in 2002 after working as a business affairs executive at Universal and Fox. His practice focuses on the technology, entertainment and media industries.
He's also helped structure high-budget projects financed by Amazon and Netflix, and has executive-produced feature films and short films, including "Miles Ahead" with Don Cheadle and Ewan McGregor and "American Ultra" with Kristin Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg.
How did you get interested in the kind of law you're practicing?
The old joke is that everyone has two businesses: their business and show business. I just wanted to work in show business.
What was your career path? What led you to your current position?
I interned during my second summer with a film production company and went back to work for them after graduation. I was basically an assistant until the company folded, and I was out looking for a new job. I landed at a company called PolyGram, which subsequently was acquired by Universal.
What inspired you to start Cohen Gardner? How did you meet Jeff Cohen?
We met at Universal. Everyone already knew Jeff because he starred as “Chunk” in "The Goonies." We felt a little bit stifled in the studio environment and wanted to do something entrepreneurial. So we bet on ourselves and started the firm. We didn’t know any better.
What is a typical day like for you?
A lot of what I do revolves around "packaging," which means assembling the key artists necessary in order to attract or trigger the finance for a movie. So a big part of my day is talking to the artists or producers that I represent and trying to put together the artistic, financial and legal puzzle that is a film. The pieces sometimes don’t fit, either for creative or money reasons, and sometimes it takes a lot of legal wrangling, diplomacy and finesse to greenlight a project. The interesting thing is that as a lawyer I get to participate at the inception stage of a movie, and really provide an opinion as to the viability of a proposed deal. Sometimes for the artist the money doesn’t make sense for the time commitment, or the script isn’t ready. Sometimes for the producer or the financier, the value of the actors involved doesn’t add up to the price of the movie. A lot of factors are at play.
Tell us about one of your favorite days/experiences since co-founding Cohen Gardner.
I have twice been lucky enough to represent the film that opened the Cannes Film Festival, and there is nothing like walking the red carpet on the Croisette. For me, though, my best moment was when Ryan Coogler's film "Fruitvale Station" premiered at Sundance and went on to sweep the festival’s major awards, helping to start a national conversation about implicit bias and the use of force by police. Ryan went on to write and direct "Creed" and now is prepping "Black Panther" for Marvel.
In what ways did your UVA Law experience help prepare you for your career?
UVA focuses on teaching lawyers to understand the business of their clients and promotes flexible legal thinking. Understanding the concerns of artists, producers and distributors is critical to success. The contract represents a moment in time when the parties wish to be bound, but you have to understand that in a creative endeavor, relationships will change significantly over time and you might end up with the dreaded "creative differences." Knowing how to get a client into a deal when the going is good, and then out of the deal when it turns sour, can be more of an art than a legal science.
Do you have advice for law students or alums who are interested in following a similar career path?
Pursuing a show biz career is not going to be like the [Office of Career Services] process your fellow students are engaging in. Unfortunately, scholastic success isn’t a great predictor of how you will do in the jungle. Hollywood tends to place greater value on street smarts, personal relationships and experience. You really have to check your pride at the door and absolutely resolve never to quit.