When Ilyssa Adler was young, she dreamed of becoming a Grammy-award winning singer. She took singing lessons, performed in musical theater productions, and sang in the state choir. But when Adler said she wanted to make a career out of it, her mother replied, "You should be a lawyer for the singers." Not realizing what that meant and wanting to know more, Adler selected law for her eighth-grade career research project, and learned how entertainment law could be combined with her passion for singing.
In 2012, after graduating from Brandeis University and Southwestern Law School, Adler became a lawyer and began working for a small litigation firm focusing on film, TV, and music. In the two years that followed, she transitioned to different firms and represented a range of high-profile clients in the film, television, and music industries.
Three years later, Adler met Margaret Boykin, Ubisoft Film and Television's director of film development, and found herself at a career crossroads. She could either stay at her existing firm and eventually move up to her boss's role, or she could leave and take the nontraditional path and work for a film and television division at a videogame company. She's now been at Ubisoft for 14 months, as senior counsel for Ubisoft Film and Television.
Why do you think your mom encouraged you to be a lawyer? Was she giving you a dose of pragmatism?
Ilyssa Adler: My parents are both doctors, and I think there's a level of practicality with that. They were both huge proponents of me being an independent, professional woman. I didn't come from a family that believed there were only certain jobs a woman could do, but I think my parents were also worried I would grow up and become a "struggling artist" who couldn't make ends meet and were trying to channel my creativity into something that was more viable in their minds.
What does entertainment law mean? How does it differ from other forms of law?
IA: People often assume that being an entertainment lawyer is all about the glitz and glamor that comes with the industry, but it's really not that. It's like practicing other types of law – it's business, litigation, drafting agreements. In the broad sense of the word, an entertainment lawyer represents clients who operate in the entertainment industry who are dealing with the same sorts of everyday matters as any other company or individual, such as contract disputes, employment claims and labor issues.
There is an added layer of nuance, because our industry runs in a unique manner and like in any other specialized industry, there are specific, unique areas of the entertainment industry that a lawyer must understand in order to properly advise and provide counsel. For example, when it comes to employment, engaging a writer on a film or television project involves more than negotiating the fee, hours, and job description since we must deal with intellectual property rights such as the copyright in the material the writer creates; we need to consider the characters and world being created by the writer and ensure that the rights in those characters and that world are part of the deal itself. Another example would be engaging an actor, as that involves negotiating his or her likeness and publicity rights.
What's the difference between representing people and representing a brand or company?
IA: There are differences that are just inherent. It's a company versus an individual, and that brings along with it different focuses, but overall I actually think they're quite similar. That's not true for all companies, but working for a company such as Ubisoft that puts creativity and artistry first makes it very similar to working with an artist. The critical things that artists care about, in my experience, are making sure things like their credit on a project is meaningful, being appropriately paid is obviously a big part of it, and making sure there's continuity in their brand. Similarly, at Ubisoft Film and Television, we want to be sure that we are being credited as producers and rightsholders on screen and in marketing materials, and we want to be sure our name appears on projects our company believes in and is in line with the Ubisoft brand, in addition to the financial bottom line.
"It's a small team backed by a huge company, which was super appealing because it meant I could have a real impact and wouldn't be just another cog in the wheel."
What made you decide to start working at Ubisoft? Were you familiar with the company beforehand?
IA: I was zero-percent familiar, if I'm being completely honest. I heard about the opportunity and then I met with Margaret [Boykin], and came home and told my husband, "I may have this opportunity to work for a company called Ubisoft." He immediately told me to take the job. He'd worked with Ubisoft before, and loves the company and the games. I told him, "But you don't even know what the job is," and he said, "It doesn't matter, just take the job!" [laughs]. I did my research, and he was obviously right.
But what actually made me take the job? A couple of things. It's a small team backed by a huge company, which was super appealing because it meant I could have a real impact and wouldn't be just another cog in the wheel. I also really liked that Ubisoft is a company that's very forward-thinking, flexible but with a clear line of what we do and don't do, and why.
The first project that Ubisoft told me about was the Just Dance film. Just Dance is not a linear story, so it's not a game with a central narrative or main character that would lend itself well to a film or television adaptation in an obvious way. This was turning a bunch of people playing dance games into a story. I thought to myself, "that's one of the more creative things I've heard in a while." It gives us a lot of flexibility, it's super different, it's not something people have seen before. I knew I wanted to be a part of making projects like this a reality.
It was also an opportunity for me to really grow. I think, as business/legal affairs, there's only so much room to grow in the traditional studio/network model. Lawyers get sectioned off into a specific department, and only do certain types of things. The opposite is true here; we are a small but growing team and operate as "all hands on deck." If I want to explore new ways of doing things, everyone is enthusiastic and encouraging.
I think a lot of people think of lawyers as the adults for the adults. They're the people that make sure we don't get sued and that we don't get into trouble. What sorts of things are you allowed to pursue and explore that might go beyond that common understanding of what lawyers do?
IA: I have a traditional legal role, but I expand on that and float between the business and legal aspects of our division. I am responsible for making sure that, legally, we're good to go. I also advise on and help structure deals. For example, if we're going to hire a writer for one of our projects, I work with our creative teams and executives to understand what the budget for the project is, what the budget for this role should be, what are the auspices of the project, and I help them build a deal. Then, I negotiate that deal, and then I'll handle the drafting of the paperwork. At some companies, there are people who handle business negotiations and different people who handle the legal drafting, and at other companies there are folks like me, who do both. I find that having the same person doing both is ideal.
In your time at Ubisoft, what are you most proud of?
IA: The Netflix deal we've closed for The Division film is a great accomplishment for the team and I'm excited to be working with Netflix on this specific project. We have approached this as a partnership, and hope to build The Division into a film franchise. I'm pleased with the way we worked with Netflix, and internally, to make this all such a smooth process. I think the project will be awesome for our division and Ubisoft as a whole.
I'm also proud of the work myself, Danielle Kreinik [director of television development], Margaret Boykin, and Stephanie Simard [VP of marketing] have been doing in collaboration with our Communications team in making our division, Ubisoft Film and Television, more understood and visible within the film and television industry. We hosted a dinner during E3 that brought together women across the film and television industry to talk about working as women in the industry and adapting IP in new and creative ways – it was a huge success! I'm really proud of what the event did for us both internally and externally, and excited for what's to come in creating future events like this that give us a chance to celebrate and host open conversations about our work. Our division makes clear that we're expanding beyond a game company; we're an entertainment company, and getting that word out to the film and television community is a great thing.
You just mentioned the work that you Danielle, Margaret, and Stephanie are doing. You're four very important and influential people at Ubisoft Film and Television and you're all women. Is that unique? And if so, what does that mean to you?
IA: I think it is unique. It is an example of the right individuals being hired for the right job at the right time. Stephanie has been with the company for a long time; she predates everyone else in the LA division, and is highly accomplished and completely right for the role that she's in. Margaret came after that, and is similarly accomplished and perfect for that role. Danielle came next and it was the same instance, then I came last. What I love is that these hires came not as a reaction to a particular political climate or anything, and it just so happens that we're a group of great women all doing great work together. While I think it's something to be really proud of, it's not something I spend a lot of time thinking about. I don't often think about how I am a woman and am in the role I'm in, I really focused and focus on pursuing a career path that allows me to do what I like to do and remain engaged and fulfilled. Of course, being here in this climate, it's fun to be a part of who we are. In addition to the four of us there are lot of other accomplished women on our team - Genevieve Jones, our head of television production, Mia Zhang, who's head of our China strategy, and Bunnary Ly, who's our head of finance. It's a bunch of highly capable women working together, alongside highly accomplished men as well.
"I just remember thinking, ‘This is BS, I'm going to be an entertainment lawyer, I'm going to be the best entertainment lawyer, and I'm going to come back one day and I'm going to tell every student here that they should believe in themselves and do what they want to do.'"
Do you think programs like the Ubisoft Women's Film and Television Fellowship, which offers paid mentorships for female screenwriters, would exist had the division not had the gender breakdown it does?
IA: Who knows! Margaret had the idea for the fellowship program, and when Danielle joined the company, they combined efforts and launched the program together. Everyone at the company is hugely enthusiastic and great supporters of it, but who knows if anyone else would have thought of it. Margaret and Danielle talk about how they were being sent writers lists that were all men, and they're not men, so their thinking was, "Hey, are there any women?" I don't know whether, if a man was looking at that list, they would've thought of that. The reality is, we all are who we are, and we bring our own experiences and background to the table. What is great about Ubisoft is that there are a lot of diverse voices.
Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew in the past? What advice would you give your past self?
IA: I would tell my past self to continue to follow your gut, because I think your gut, in any field, is always right. Entertainment law is a competitive field, and a lot of law students and lawyers hope to make a career in entertainment law. During my first day of law school we were sat down and the head of the entertainment law department told the incoming class, "None of you are going to become an entertainment lawyer. It's the hardest thing to do. You should find something else to do. It's not great, it's not glamorous." I'm sure a lot of people listened to that and decided to do something else. And I'm sure that the school meant well in trying to refocus students' energies so they would find jobs and not disappointment...but I totally disagreed, and it really upset me. I was 21 when I went to law school, I thought I was invincible and could do anything, and I just remember thinking, "This is BS, I'm going to be an entertainment lawyer, I'm going to be the best entertainment lawyer, and I'm going to come back one day and I'm going to tell every student here that they should believe in themselves and do what they want to do." I do go back to Southwestern now, speak to students, and tell them to believe in themselves.