“So, do we have a deal?” Since the days of Gable and Lombard, that question has routinely been answered with the “Hollywood handshake” — a tacit understanding that a deal not only had just been struck but would also be honored. Sometimes the paperwork followed. Then again, sometimes even that formality was dispensed with.

A person’s word, however, may be on its way out as the venerable gold standard in Tinseltown. Recent court decisions are forcing today’s entertainment lawyers to re-choreograph the Hollywood deal-making tango. “I’m telling my clients you don’t have a deal until you have a signed document that contains or refers to every key deal point,” says Edward Vaill, an entertainment partner at Brentwood’s Shaub & Williams. He ought to know. One of his clients, Spanish government-owned Radio Television Espanola (RTVE), was slammed last month when the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals effectively said “no deal” to a television licensing agreement his client thought it had clinched with New World Entertainment, a division of Fox Television.

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