Lawyer carves out dual career in showbiz

Lawyer carves out dual career in showbiz

Songwriter turned lawyer, producer of Degrassi series, is at it again, writes BEPPI CROSARIOL

By BEPPI CROSARIOL
Monday, January 17, 2005 – Page B12

If success in the entertainment law business were measured in reality-TV terms, Stephen Stohn would be its Canadian Idol.

In fact, you could literally call him the Canadian Idol lawyer: Mr. Stohn, founder of Toronto law firm Stohn Hay Cafazzo Dembroski Richmond LLP, acted as counsel for all of the competitors on last year’s hit talent show series.

His selection for the job isn’t surprising considering his long career in the music business trenches, first as a songwriter, then as a lawyer for such notable Canadian musicians as k.d. lang, Alannah Myles, Tom Cochrane, Loreena McKennitt and the Cowboy Junkies.

Now Mr. Stohn — part of a growing group of lawyers who’ve carved out dual careers as legal advisers and creative producers in the music, film and TV industries — is about to turn the tables on the reality-TV concept as co-producer of a highly anticipated new prime-time series dramatizing the travails of national talent show winners.

Instant Star, which begins airing Jan. 23 on CTV, is the brainchild of Mr. Stohn and his wife, Linda Schuyler. Together they run Epitome Pictures Inc., best-known for the 1990s soap opera Riverdale and the award-winning franchise of teen dramas, Degrassi Junior High, Degrassi High and Degrassi: The Next Generation.

The half-hour Instant Star episodes chronicle the ups and downs of Jude Harrison, a 15-year-old who wins a singer-songwriter contest and gets sucked into the vortex of concert tours, round-the-clock partying and the dog-eat-dog underworld of compromising music producers, sleazy managers and brazen paparazzi.

“It is just an absolute dream come true for me,” says Mr. Stohn, a guitar player and keyboardist who, prior to becoming a lawyer in the 1970s, co-wrote the top-10 hits Maybe Your Heart and Once in a Long Time. His law firm bills itself as the country’s largest focusing exclusively on entertainment and media law.

Mr. Stohn’s legal colleagues give him credit for combining a distinguished law practice with strong business and creative skills.

“Stephen is one of those guys who I think is universally respected,” says David Zitzerman, a top-ranked entertainment lawyer at Goodmans LLP.

In fact, Mr. Stohn belongs to a select but growing group of entertainment lawyers who’ve successfully crossed into the production world — mirroring the broader legal world in which lawyers are increasingly being sought after for their business acumen, not just strict legal advice.

They include Martin Katz, founder of Toronto-based Prospero Pictures and executive producer of the acclaimed new film Hotel Rwanda, and Ivan Schneeberg and David Fortier, former Goodmans lawyers now working as co-presidents at Temple Street Entertainment, a Toronto-based TV and film production and distribution company responsible for TV’s Queer as Folk and the new Darcy’s Wild Life on NBC.

“When we came into law in 1993, Stephen Stohn was one of the handful of marquee entertainment lawyers who also had big-firm training,” Mr. Schneeberg says. “He’s an easy guy to deal with. I’ve got a lot of time for him.”

Aside from production, many entertainment lawyers have also moved into more conventional business roles within the entertainment industry, including Graham Henderson, who worked with Mr. Stohn at law firms in the 1980s and later moved to Universal Music as its Canadian senior vice-president of e-commerce and business affairs before becoming president, last November, of the Canadian Recording Industry Association.

“I thought it would be inevitable [that Mr. Stohn] would start producing creative products rather than lawyering up contracts,” Mr. Henderson says. “He’s got left and right brain working overtime.”

In addition to securing financing and hammering out all the necessary business contracts for Instant Star, Mr. Stohn supervised much of the hiring and music production for the series, which includes 13 original songs to be released on compact disc by the Orange Record Label. The songs will also be available for downloading off the Puretracks on-line music service.

It’s a vindication of a career vision he embraced before detouring into law in the 1970s.

After playing in several high school rock bands in the 1960s, Mr. Stohn eventually teamed up with fellow Trent University student Christopher Ward. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Mr. Ward would go on to become one of Canada’s first video jockeys and produce and pen a number of top hits for Ms. Myles, including the classic late-eighties anthem Black Velvet.

The starry-eyed pair ventured to Europe as a country and western duo, managing to pick up gigs here and there, including the Playboy Club in Turkey and aboard a U.S. destroyer.

Mr. Stohn later dabbled in movie production with two other friends but soon watched plans for what he calls the “great Canadian feature film” crash and burn after winning initial interest from a movie studio and director.

The team’s lawyer, George Miller, nevertheless was impressed by Mr. Stohn’s negotiating skills and urged his client to go to law school.

If success in the entertainment law business were measured in reality-TV terms, Stephen Stohn would be its Canadian Idol.

In fact, you could literally call him the Canadian Idol lawyer: Mr. Stohn, founder of Toronto law firm Stohn Hay Cafazzo Dembroski Richmond LLP, acted as counsel for all of the competitors on last year’s hit talent show series.

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