On the wall of the Century City office of Joseph A. Calabrese '81 is a framed photograph of the Law Library in Myron Taylor Hall, presented to him as a thank you for his work as Southern California regional chair of the Law School's Annual Fund. "I keep it there as a reminder of the good times spent in the Law Library, something I don't get to do very much these days," Calabrese remarks with a smile. Head of the Entertainment, Media, and Sports Practice at the venerable law giant O'Melveny and Myers, he has built a reputation as a dealmaker.
According to Variety's "Hollywood Law Impact Report," he specializes in complex deals, many in the $100 million- to billion-dollar range. In April, the Century City Bar Association honored him as Entertainment Lawyer of the Year, and the mayor of Los Angeles and the California State bar each gave him a special commendation. In his remarks to an audience of over 500, he apologized to his proud parents in the audience for abandoning them for the West Coast twenty-eight years ago.
"Joe is at the top of his profession. He combines a deep knowledge of all facets of the entertainment industry with the kind of charm and velocity that opens doors and gets things done," says former U.S. secretary of state, Warren Christopher, who is the senior partner at O'Melveny and Myers.
But it was in New York City, not Hollywood, that Calabrese thought he'd land when he was a boy growing up across the Hudson River in New Jersey. "My dad was a small businessman," relates Calabrese. "Whenever things got difficult, a bankrupt customer, city approval for a proposed building, etc., I noticed he called in a lawyer. So I thought being a lawyer must be a good thing because you can help solve other people's problems."
By the time Calabrese got to Cornell Law School he had decided to become an international lawyer. "I had spent time overseas and wanted to return." In his second year at Cornell, he was articles editor on the Cornell International Law Journal. "I thought going to a big corporate law firm in New York was the best way to realize my goal." Calabrese interned his second-year summer at a large New York law firm, mainly because they had more international offices than any other firm he interviewed. "To say I didn't like it is too strong, but I felt I was missing something."
On the advice of a worldly classmate, he decided to see what else was out there. Still searching for an organization with an international practice, he interviewed at law firms in several other major cities including Boston, Miami, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and San Francisco.
His last interview was with O'Melveny and Myers in Los Angeles, where the atmosphere seemed markedly different. "For the first time no one said 'We're just as good as those New York firms.' In fact, New York never came up! And each partner and associate I met talked about some incredible project he or she was working on and with equal passion about things they were doing outside the office too." He also liked the fact that O'Melveny and Myers had no political bias - its current chairman is Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr., former White House counsel to President Ronald Reagan and a close confidant of Senator John McCain in his recent 2008 presidential bid. In contrast, its senior partner is a well-known Democrat, and Calabrese was on the National Finance Committee for now President Barack Obama.
"So I took the road less traveled, moved out to L.A., but saved my New York offers." In his first year, he rotated through three of the firm's departments. In corporate, he handled an initial public offering; in real estate, an early geothermal development deal; and in entertainment, he worked on a number of primetime television series and independent film deals. "The work was so engaging that I knew the job would keep my interest." He accepted an offer to join the entertainment and media practice full-time.
"When I showed up, I had a good, basic understanding of the Uniform Commercial Code and complex commercial law transactions, thanks to Cornell Law professors like Bob Summers, Bill Hogan, and Russell Osgood," says Calabrese.
He also credits Professor Jack Barceló with "opening my mind to international business transactions." That came in handy when, three years later, he was asked to open O'Melveny and Myers's London office. "By pursuing a career as an entertainment and media lawyer, I found myself in one of the most international industries in the world," he says with delight.
"Joe is a rare breed," observes Iris Knobloch, president of Warner Bros., France. "He combines great legal skills with a keen sense for business, has an outstanding appreciation and understanding of the international landscape, and a track record of discovering and mentoring the best in his trade."
Says Calabrese about why he likes his job: "The industry changes financially and technologically every three years, which means I'm always working with new issues and new clients. I've done everything from simple film production and distribution to structured financing to M&A to complex output licensing transactions; I have yet to be bored."
Along the way, Calabrese has gotten to play a leading role in the production and distribution of iconic films like Driving Miss Daisy, When Harry Met Sally, and Blade Runner; the formation and financing of successful television and film companies such as Castle Rock Entertainment, the Weinstein Company, and Legendary Productions; and some of the largest film and sports licensing deals of the last two decades for studios like Warner Bros., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, DreamWorks Animation, and the International Olympic Committee. He also routinely handles some of the largest slate film financing deals ever done for private equity and hedge fund clients like Soros Fund Management and Elliot Management.
During a typical workday last May, Calabrese was busy helping the International Olympic Committee's evaluation of bids for the 2016 International Olympic Games, helping a well-known producer of animated films structure and finance a new independent film company, and working with two clients on the rollout of digital cinema in the United States and the United Kingdom.
As one of the first Cornell Law School graduates to blaze a trail to Los Angeles, he was also the first Cornell Law School grad to make partner at O'Melveny and Myers. Calabrese says, "I never met anybody who came to the table with a better legal education than I had, and I'm really dedicated to bringing more Cornell Law graduates here."
In his spare time, he is a car aficionado who owns a 1964 Aston Martin DB5 (the same model James Bond drove in the movie Goldfinger) - a souvenir of his two years in the firm's London office. He is a former board member of Educate the Children Foundation, an in-kind charity that provides computers and supplies to needy California public schools, and is the current chair of the Constitutional Rights Foundation, which provides internships, mock trial programs, and enrichment materials in civics and government to middle and high school students. Married almost twenty-three years to his wife Margot (whom he met at the Rose Bowl), they have two sons, A.J., eighteen, and Justin, sixteen.
It seems as if the road less traveled, was the right route to take after all.
--LINDA BRANDT MYERS