Deborah Wagnon

Legal eagles
March 18th, 2001
The City Paper
By Ron Wynn

Nashville attorney Deborah Wagnon has a long and impressive list of major clients she has represented in every area of entertainment from the stage to film and music.

Wagnon recently joined Cornelius & Collins to lead a new entertainment and sports law division. Before that, Wagnon was a shareholder with Greenberg Traurig law firm and was also a former partner/shareholder and lead attorney in the Nashville office of John Mason Partners.

Wagnon was also directly involved in the planning and organizational efforts, which helped create what is now the third annual Nashville Screenwriters Conference. The event begins today and continues through May 20 at the Hermitage Hotel.

Wagnon relocated to Nashville in 1994 after spending several years working in Hollywood. She says any aspiring screenwriter needs to understand they are working in a very specialized area and truly cannot function effectively without experienced legal support and assistance. “It is a long and arduous process from having an idea, getting that idea down into a script, then finally seeing that idea on the screen. One of the things that are most important for any screenwriter involves getting protection for themselves and their credits.

“On any script, there are a lot of people who end up working on it. The writer has to make sure that their credit is protected. There are other instances where writers don’t want their names on the final script, and that requires specific steps to be taken.

“I know that people will laugh whenever an attorney says this, but you simply cannot afford to put a film out there that hasn’t been completely protected. The same is true for a screenplay and the screenwriter’s contributions,” Wagnon said.

Unlike many attorneys who find their career direction after they complete law school, Wagnon attended Stanford Law School specifically to learn about the legal end of the entertainment business. “I was a working musician and singer all through law school,” Wagnon said. “My final year, Stanford created a specialized entertainment law curriculum, and they brought in one of the top attorneys in the field in Norman Gray. His clients included Marlon Brando. Getting the chance to study under him was a major plus.”

Wagnon subsequently moved from being a music producer to head of music business affairs and eventually general counsel at Landmark Entertainment in Hollywood.

Wagnon has worked with such clients as Lorrie Morgan, Gloria Estefan, Lee Ann Womack, John Berry, Robert Earl Keen, Jon Secada and a new name, Puerto Rican performer Shalim Ortiz, whom she calls “the next Ricky Martin.”

“People don’t know about him yet, but he’s going to be a huge star very soon,” Wagnon said. She also is the co-counsel for Reba McEntire, Randy Travis, Travis Tritt and Olivia Newton-John, among others.

However, Wagnon is most excited about her current project, an upcoming feature film titled The Journey. “This was a clearance nightmare, and I spent more than two years in the trenches with it,” Wagnon said. “There’s a scene from a George Lucas film in it; we’ve got tons of music. We have a song from Arlo Guthrie, another from the Indigo Girls, as well as Hootie & The Blowfish. We had to get a Billy Crystal clearance and one for Henry Winkler.

In fact The Journey’s writer, producer and director Eric Saperston will be attending the Screenwriters Conference. Wagnon says that these types of events can also be very beneficial to new screenwriters.

“When I was in school, I made a point of attending everything about entertainment that was happening at UCLA. One of the things that people have a misconception about when they’re starting out is that you don’t necessarily have to really know someone.

“You can attend functions like the Screenwriters Conference and meet all kinds of major people. You can learn at these events the right way to submit something, the proper decorum so that when you do send a script to someone they’re expecting it and they will respond to it,” Wagnon said.

Wagnon also points to The Journey as an example of new fields that are open to fresh faces. “We had a 13-minute clip of The Journey on the Internet for over a year; it was one of the most successful entries in terms of getting hits. The Internet can be a wonderful tool for getting started in the business.”

Wagnon is also happy at how the Nashville Screenwriters Conference has evolved over the past couple of years and hopes that everyone in the Nashville creative community attends the sessions. “We envisioned this as a way to make a bridge between the Nashville and Hollywood communities. I think it has been successful so far, and I hope the event continues to grow and attract even more participants and guests.”

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