Your average litigator has a standard checklist of issues to ponder before filing a lawsuit. Considerations such as whether the defendant has had enough minimum contacts within the judicial forum, whether one has alleged sufficient facts to state a claim on which relief can be granted, and what to get for lunch at the courthouse coffee shop when dropping off the complaint usually predominate the lawyer’s thought process. But because being a good entertainment lawyer sometimes means being a public relations guru, any litigator who is preparing to file a lawsuit touching on the entertainment industry — or on any topic likely to capture the public’s attention, and thus media interest — must take into account an entirely separate list of considerations if the lawyer is going to do his or her job properly.
All good entertainment litigators will tell you that, when filing a lawsuit on behalf of a well-known actor or in connection with a popular film or TV show, the verdict reached in the court of public opinion is often just as important as the one reached by the jury. Especially for actors, whose hirability is directly related to the public’s perception of them (and, correspondingly, the public’s willingness to shell out $17 to see him or her on the big screen — I know, those Arclight tickets are a little steep, but it’s my closest theater and the ushers are just so nice!), how fans and the ticket-buying public react to a lawsuit can often have further reaching effects than the actual verdict or damage award.
To be clear, this cuts both ways. An actor who is viewed as vindicating his or her rights or righting a wrong, particularly against an anonymously evil corporate monolith, sends a message to other would-be exploiters not to abuse the actor, while generating sympathy with the public and enhancing his or her own brand. But an actor who overreaches legally or who bungles the public relations component of litigation risks (1) developing a reputation as litigious and otherwise difficult to work with, making it harder to get jobs; and/or (2) alienating the public, making them less interested in paying good money to see his or her films, making the actor less commercially valuable to potential employers, making it harder to get jobs.
Knowing how to use the media effectively, however, is not always easy for lawyers. After all, most of us have our undergraduate degrees in political science or rhetoric (OK, that one’s probably just me. [Ed. Note: No, Rachel, it’s most of us.]), not communications or public relations. But in a media-intensive business, that lack of media savvy can be devastating.
Consider, if you will, the lawsuit filed by Caitlin Sanchez, erstwhile voice of Nickelodeon’s cartoon juggernaut Dora the Explorer, alleging that the show’s producers tricked her into signing an unconscionable contract, without the benefit of an attorney, and failed to pay her adequately for her voiceover services.
At first glance, this case seems like a public relations no-brainer. Caitlin, the child of Cuban immigrants, is still just 14 years old, is cute as a button, and she is suing the big bad studio that has made millions off her (allegedly) inadequately-compensated child labor. Enragedreporters and bloggers everywhere fired off with “Dora the Exploited” headlines (each one seemingly convinced of the originality of the pun). Even the most level-headed media observers seemed to be reaching for the nearest pitchfork. But, due to the way her attorney has attempted to manipulate the media’s reaction to her suit over the past couple of weeks, Caitlin isn’t coming across as the poor, innocent victim that her qualifications would lead one to expect.
While the initial media narrative seemed to adhere to the “little girl David vs. greedy studio Goliath” angle that Caitlin’s complaint and initial press releases were aiming for, last week, Caitlin’s attorney, John Balestriere, may have taken a wrong turn on her lawsuit media campaign. On Tuesday, Mr. Balestriere sent (and probably released to the media) a fairly inflammatory letter, threatening that if Nickelodeon didn’t make his client a substantial settlement offer by 1 p.m. the next day, he would start humiliating the network by exposing less-than-favorable information about it and allowing Caitlin to do media interviews. However, since Mr. Balestriere’s threats, Nickelodeon has issued a statement painting the attorney as a Svengali and user of “intimidation tactics,” no settlement offers have been made, Caitlin has still not done any interviews, and headlines referring to Caitlin as “Dora the Extorter” havebegun to appear all over the blogosphere (each one, again, seemingly convinced of the originality of the pun — and, just for the record “Dora the Exploiter” puns also go back years).
Because of her attorney’s (mis)handling of Caitlin’s lawsuit (and its perception in the media), what should have been a slam dunk in the court of public opinion has turned into stories painting 14-year-old Caitlin as a greedy and ungrateful brat. Regardless of whether she ultimately wins her suit or settles for even a portion of what she is seeking, if Caitlin wants to continue working in this business, she — or, more appropriately, her parents and attorneys — needs to consider how audiences and potential employers will perceive her when this is all said and done. It’s simply difficult to convince audiences to buy you as one type of on-screen character when your off-screen persona is so diametrically opposed (just ask Lindsay Lohan).
On the other hand though, it’s also difficult to get audiences to come see you if they don’t know who you are. Before she filed her suit, I bet the average person had no idea who Caitlin Sanchez was or had ever seen her picture; now she’s everywhere. In a world where the phrase “success by scandal” has its own Wikipedia page, I guess the jury is still out on whether Caitlin will walk away from all this as a winner or a loser.