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Michael C. Donaldson's life would make a good movie. Born and raised in Florida, he hitchhiked across the country to California the day after he graduated from the University of Florida. He felt the urge to go West, but wasn't quite sure what to do once he got there. He applied to the Peace Corps and the Marine Corps on the same day. Which corps do you think moved faster?
"I got accepted in the Peace Corps when I was in Okinawa with my own platoon. Isn't that funny?" he said. "The Marine Corps moved very quickly."
During three years with the Marines, Donaldson, 65, was the officer in charge of the first Marine Ground Combat Unit to go into Vietnam. He led a reconnaissance platoon up and down the Vietnam coast for about 45 days in 1962. While politicians in Washington anticipated a short war in Vietnam, Donaldson said his experience there convinced him it would be a long one.
"I had a real sense of how large the total involvement might be. I was very disappointed to be correct on that," he said. "The same with Iraq—I got some of the details wrong, but it was very clear to me that it was going to be a morass."
By 1964, Donaldson was in law school at UC Berkeley, which was embroiled in rowdy freedom-of-speech protests and would soon become a hotbed of antiwar activity. After graduating, Donaldson had a general civil litigation practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles for about 10 years. But he realized he didn't want to litigate for the rest of his life. A movie lover, he packed up and moved to Century City, which is adjacent to Beverly Hills.
"I transitioned into entertainment litigation and then entertainment transactional, and now my practice is pure transactional," he said. "With litigation, it's the grueling hours. It's being in an adversarial position for all of your working day, as opposed to being in a constructive position, making things happen with people in their careers and helping them achieve their dream. I find that a much better way to spend my life."
An entertainment lawyer for more than 30 years, Donaldson is the immediate past president of the International Documentary Association. He was IDA president for three years.
"That was pretty exciting because during those three years, we entered into an agreement with the Sundance Channel to televise an annual review of the documentary through IDA and a couple events that IDA had," he said. "Also, there was a point of time when the cable channels were removing credits from the documentaries from the channel and putting them on the Internet on all their commissioned works, and we were able to negotiate a credit arrangement with the cable channels."
Donaldson is also General Counsel to the Independent Feature Project/West and Writers Guild of America/West Foundation.
Donaldson teaches seminars at UCLA film school and has written several books, including Negotiating for Dummies, which has sold more than 100,000 copies in English and has been translated into nine languages. He also wrote Do It Yourself! Trademarks & Copyrights, 1995 and Clearance & Copyright: Everything the Filmmaker Needs to Know.
Donaldson represents writers, directors, and producers in theater and independent film. He and his partners at Donaldson & Hart structure deals and negotiate contracts for filmmakers and handle intellectual property rights. They also work with studios, networks, and talent agencies.
"We're just finishing up Nomad, which is a $50-million film, which was shot in Kazakhstan. It's going to have some of the most beautiful footage ever laid eyes on," he said.
For attorneys interested in pursuing careers in entertainment law, Donaldson said it's important to get some basic experience with a firm in transactions.
"It would be nice if it were in entertainment, but it could be in corporate or financial or contracts so that you're grounded in basic legal skills," he said. "Then I would suggest that you get involved with independent filmmakers through organizations like IFP or IDA. Go to the festivals like Sundance, Los Angeles Film Festival, Tribeca, Toronto—where you can begin to network with other working professionals making films that get seen by filmmakers. There are thousands of people making films that will never be seen by anybody."
He said a career in entertainment law has been a dream career and that independent film is in a "golden age," with critical accolades being presented to films outside the studio system. Studios are making as many films as ever, but independent films are increasingly winning the awards. Financing and negotiating distribution for films is a big part of Donaldson's job, and although the business is high risk, it's never dull and can produce enormous profits.
The documentary Spellbound, about a group of kids competing in spelling bees across the United States, cost less than $100,000 to make, but made about $6 million at the box office. Documentaries can be hard to finance, but they can be great investments, he said.
"You're helping people realize their dreams," he said. "You're helping people get what they want in life, helping them with their careers, and there's a lot of adversarial activities in that. But the overall purpose of the advocacy is to get films made, get careers built, get projects moved along."