Q&A: David Quinto, the lawyer who guards the door at the Oscars

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Q&A: David Quinto, the lawyer who guards the door at the Oscars

Tue Mar 02, 2010 @ 09:26AM PST

By Matthew Belloni

Quinto,david Attention Academy Award winners: David Quinto will sue you if you sell your Oscar. He’ll sue you if you try to sell someone else’s Oscar, or if you make a fake Oscar, or even if you call yourself an Oscar winner. A partner at L.A.'s Quinn Emanuel, Quinto (along with Academy general counsel John Quinn) aggressively protects the Academy's copyrights and trademarks worldwide. And on Sunday night he'll be guarding the door at the Kodak Theatre. Beware.  

THR, Esq.: What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen someone do to the Oscar statuette?

David Quinto: There are so many! Somebody was selling Oscars with, uh, rather large phalluses. And there was a real Oscar recovered in a drug bust, which was a little unusual. It’s in (Academy in-house lawyer) Scott Miller’s office.

THR, Esq.: The Academy has a reputation for being ultra-aggressive in pursuing infringers. Why?

Quinto: Well, 75% of the Academy’s income comes from the awards ceremony. It’s important that people remain interested so the Academy wants to prevent anything that would damage or tarnish the reputation of the Oscar. It wants to maintain the Oscar as an image of excellence in motion picture making. I frequently get asked why the Academy is aggressive in trying to make sure the Oscars don’t get sold. The Oscar should remain a symbol of achievement in motion picture making and it should demonstrate exclusivity. If there’s a perception that anyone with money can buy one, then people may start to lose interest in it.

THR, Esq.: But sometimes you go after people who think they’re buying memorabilia legitimately on eBay and suddenly they get a nasty letter from you. Are your resources unlimited for this kind of enforcement or are there things you don’t touch?

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Quinto: The Academy is a nonprofit. It clearly has a limited budget. So the Academy wants to be careful picking and choosing its fights. A lot of what I do involves bluffing and persuasion. And a lot involves education. We believe that many people infringe because they’ve seen somebody else infringing and they have assumed that the Oscar is somehow part of a national patrimony and in the public domain. So we want to educate people that it's not. Therefore when we find a company that has sold fake Oscars, we frequently write to the customers or ask them to write to the customers to inform them about the Academy’s rights. We educate people that it is a copyrighted, trademarked property of the Academy and is not available for public use.

THR, Esq.: The NFL is similarly aggressive in protecting the Super Bowl marks, even going so far as to prevent people from using the words “Super Bowl” in commercial media. Has the Academy ever tried to crack down on, say, Vanity Fair for hosting an “Oscar” party?

Quinto: No. The Academy doesn’t have any problem if other organizations want to have parties in conjunction with the Academy Awards. The Academy’s only concern in that regard is to make sure it’s clear that whatever party is being conducted is not an officially sanctioned Academy event. And obviously the Academy wants to prevent the use of its marks in advertising such event.

THR, Esq.: But there are examples of the Academy cracking down on small-town people who throw parties and make little candy Oscars .

Quinto: (Laughs.) We send out lots of letters and sometimes we’re not aware of how big the user is. Again, it goes back the educational purpose of making sure people are not inadvertently led to believe that the Oscar is available to use by anyone.

THR, Esq.: On Oscar night, where are you and what are you doing?

Quinto: During the afternoon, I’m located at what’s called the “Help Table.” Well, I should say it’s euphemistically called the “Help Table.” (Laughs.) When people present their tickets, the tickets are scanned under UV light and the ticket holders are asked to show government identification. If there’s any kind of discrepancy, such as the name on the ID doesn’t match the name on the ticket, or the person doesn’t have a ticket for some reason, they’re referred to the Help Table. There we have several associates who interview the people to determine what’s going on. If it is a legitimate ticket holder and the ticket is really lost or misplaced, we’ll try to get the person seated. If there is an issue with the identification, we will see if we can otherwise identify that the person with the ticket is the correct person.

THR, Esq.: So if Sandra Bullock doesn’t bring ID, it’s not a problem.

Quinto: Yeah. Although I should say there are separate lines for the high-profile nominees and presenters.

THR, Esq.: So who’s the biggest person who didn’t have his or her ID and needed it?

Quinto: I don’t want to name names. But we have stopped at least one billionaire.The associates are supposed to be courteous and say they have orders to follow. After they gather all the facts, they present them to me or to Scott Miller, and we then make a determination: should the person be admitted? Should the person be identified and escorted off the premise? Or should the person be arrested? In the latter two cases, we will have the ODOs (off duty officers) escort whoever it is to the sub-station at the Hollywood complex. A report will be filled out, the people will be photographed, and if it’s an arrest, they will be taken to jail from there.

THR, Esq.: Given how much attention the White House gate-crashers got, are you on especially high alert this year?

Quinto: People ask whether what happened at the White House or because of recent problems in the Middle East if we’re on high alert. And the answer is that the Academy began ramping up security significantly after Gulf War I. That’s one of the reasons the Academy is no longer able to offer any tickets to members of the public. It’s one reason why you have to sign up to be a seat filler months in advance so the Academy can run background checks to make sure we’re not seating anyone who’s going to cause problems.

THR, Esq.: Do you keep a photo of the White House crashers?

Quinto: Oh yes. There is a temporary office set up near the Hollywood & Highland complex that’s used by LAPD and Homeland Security, including the FBI, where they post photographs of people who are known to have attempted to crash in the past. Every year we have to check with the various nominees and presenters to find out whether there are any stalker threats that they face.

THR, Esq.: Do you keep a list of people who are known stalkers?

Quinto: I personally don’t maintain that list, but that list is available, yes. That's something that the Academy security forces keep.

THR, Esq.: Who is the oddest person to make it inside the theater?

Quinto: One year one of the ODOs was undercover—undercover meaning in tuxedo—and stopped a gentleman in the orchestra section during an intermission. The guy had two tickets in his jacket so he asked me what I thought. He was dressed to the nines and he absolutely looked like he belonged there, as opposed to many people who crash. He spoke English very well but with a European accent, and was suave and debonair. I was ready to apologize to him for the inconvenience, but the ODO said, “Doesn’t it strike you as strange that both tickets are for the same seat?” He was arrested and searched, and it turned out he had seven tickets to the same seat. It was located in a section of the theatre that has no seats because they’re removed for the cameras. So he had very cleverly chosen a section that would be claimed by no one else. After that, the Academy changed the tickets to make them much more difficult to counterfeit.

THR, Esq: Has anyone ever been busted inside with a weapon? 

Quinto: We have not caught anybody inside with a weapon. Some years ago we did catch somebody in Beverly Hills a couple days before the show who was convicted of several felonies in Spain, had entered the country illegally, and made death threats against one of the nominees.

THR, Esq.: You seem like a pretty mild-mannered guy. Do you ever get into tense situations with people?

Quinto: I don’t want to because I’m there representing the Academy and I want to maintain decorum. But I will say that under the protocol that the Academy has established—who gets kicked out, who gets arrested—a factor is cooperation. So if I feel somebody is not cooperating then I have discretion to make an arrest, as opposed to having somebody just escorted out.

THR, Esq.: Where do you sit during the show?

Quinto: I’m on bottom floor, toward the back. I have an aisle seat so that if I need to go to the sub-station during the show I can. I will watch the show but during every commercial break I will be in touch with the substation via email and or cell phone to find out what’s going on and make calls. I am in constant touch with the substation and we have a lawyer from our firm in the substation throughout the show and throughout the Governor’s Ball afterward, making sure that any arrests are good arrests.

THR, Esq.: Do you get to go to the Governor's Ball? As a guest or are you working?

Quinto: I’m a guest.  But I do stay in touch with the substation.

THR, Esq: I hope they give you a good seat.

Quinto: No complaints.

THR, Esq: You’re also in charge of reviewing the show’s script for possible legal issues. Give us a good example of something that required your attention.

Quinto: One year there was a joke about an unnamed baseball player, but it suggested strongly that said unnamed player might be using steroids. ABC broadcast standards went berserk, saying “Anybody hearing this would know that’s a reference to Barry Bonds, and my God, we’ll be sued.” I said, “Look, I’m a trial lawyer, and I can assure you the last thing Barry Bonds will do is sue because if he did, we would subpoena every last one of his medical records and it would all be out there.”

THR, Esq.: So what happened?

Quinto: During rehearsals, people didn’t think the joke was particularly funny. I thought it was hysterical. But it was cut because it was not sufficiently funny.

Illustration: Chris Morris

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