Experiencing the Magic
An Interview with Steve Bardwil, Executive Vice President of Legal Affairs for The Walt Disney Studios
Sarah R. Binning
Kyle Morishita

Posted Friday, March 3, 2017

Q.  How long have you been working for Disney?

A. Almost 25 years.

Q. Can you describe how you came to work at Disney?

A. I practiced litigation for five years and then I was a Distribution and Marketing Counsel at 20th Century Fox Studios for about a year and a half.  In 1985, I came to Disney as Production Counsel and I am now Executive Vice President of Legal Affairs for The Walt Disney Studios.

Q. How did you get to where you are now?

A.  Hard work and thinking outside the box - pure and simple.

Q. What exactly do you do as the Executive Vice President of Legal Affairs?

A.  I oversee the legal affairs for The Walt Disney Studios.

Q. Can you describe what you do in terms of overseeing the affairs of The Walt Disney Studios?

A.  The Walt Disney Studios encompasses Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, Walt Disney Studios Music Group, Motion Picture Production and Distribution Operations, and the Broadway Stage business.  I oversee the legal affairs of those operations.

Q. When you were in law school, did you know you wanted to be in Entertainment Law? 

A.  I don't think I ever really thought of entertainment law when I was in law school, nor did I ever think about working for a motion picture studio.  It just came about.  When I was doing business litigation, I represented some entertainment clients and became interested in the business and legal issues that arose in that arena.

Q. What is your biggest legal focus?

A.  My biggest legal focus?  I would say one of the areas of focus is new technology and how it impacts the various studio businesses, as well as thinking outside the box, thinking differently.

Q. For someone in law school who would potentially want to be in a position like yours, what subjects do you recommend they focus on? 

A.  Probably Intellectual Property and Contracts.  Coming from a litigation background, my philosophy is that as a transactional lawyer, what we are doing is creating a file. If a particular matter we worked on becomes the subject of litigation, my goal is to have a file that supports the client's position in the litigation, rather than harm the client's position in the litigation.

Q.  We were wondering if you could talk a little about how the economy has affected your and Disney's legal work in general.

A.  It really hasn't affected the amount of legal work we do. Disney develops, creates, and distributes product around the world. This involves numerous transactions that require legal attention and services. We are always trying to work efficiently and operate in a cost effective manner. 

Q.  Does Disney usually hire within or do they have a program that looks to younger students?

A. At the Studio, we typically hire people who have had three to four years of legal experience. We have not hired people right out of law school.  We hire lawyers that are smart, bright, and have good people skills.  Job candidates need to have some lawyer experience under their belts so they can hit the ground running.  Some of the people that we hire have had litigation backgrounds, while others have had transactional backgrounds.  I wouldn't say that there is any one particular kind of background or track that is better than another.  Integrity is also something that is absolutely necessary.

Q.  Can you expand on the kind of technology issues that arise?

A.  Obviously, there are new distribution formats, as well as new formats in which pictures are produced. There are 3-D and Blu-ray technologies, as well as video-on-demand. There are different distribution platforms, formats, and different production technologies that are utilized in making movies.  Performance capture is an example.  It's not like the old days when there was 35 millimeter film and you filmed the movie, developed the film, edited it, and distributed it in theatres and on DVDs.  That's not the world we live in anymore.

Q.  So would you say your work has changed a lot since you started working in this business?

A.  Indeed it has.

Q.  Do you do a lot of work internationally or is it more domestic?

A.  Both.

Q.  Do you have any advice for law school students, who would be interested in the kind of success you have achieved?

A.  I think there is no substitute for hard work. And it is very important to listen to what your clients say regarding what they want, as well as what the other parties and their attorneys say and want.  Then you can think outside of the box and find creative solutions to legal issues and problems.

Steve Bardwil currently serves as executive vice president of Legal Affairs for The Walt Disney Studios.  In that role, he supervises and administrates legal affairs practices, policies and procedures for the various entertainment business units that comprise the Studio, such as motion pictures, home entertainment, theatrical, and others.  He reports directly to Alan Braverman, senior executive vice president and general counsel for The Walt Disney Company, and Alan Bergman, president of The Walt Disney Studios.

Among his various duties, Bardwil is routinely involved in the structuring and implementation of multi-picture co-production and co-finance deals with major talents, studios and financial institutions.  During his tenure at Disney, he has played a leading role in the settlement with Bob and Harvey Weinstein, the acquisition of Miramax Films, Pixar Animation Studios, and the creation of ImageMovers Digital, Disney's venture with Robert Zemeckis.

After joining Disney 25 years ago as a production attorney for Walt Disney Pictures, and prior to his promotion to executive vice president in 2005, Bardwil was senior vice president of Legal Affairs for the Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group (the umbrella company for the Disney, Hollywood and Touchstone film labels), and supervised the feature film production attorneys, and the Contracts, Clearance, Casting, and Credit Administrations in the negotiation, execution and implementation of all production agreements as well as development deals.

Prior to joining Disney, Bardwil was Distribution and Marketing counsel at 20th Century Fox. 

Bardwil received his B.A. in Psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1973, and his J.D. from Loyola Law School in 1977.  In 2006 and 2007, his peers selected him as a "Super Lawyer" (among the top 5% of all lawyers in Southern California) as published in special issues of Law & Politics and Los Angeles Magazine.