Though lawyers for writer Barbara Chase-Riboud have asked a federal court to stop the release of the film “Amistad,” her attorney Pierce O’Donnell admitted Tuesday that winning such injunction motions are rare — “But the facts in this case really (support) such a ruling.”
Claiming the film is based on her book “Echo of Lions,” Chase-Riboud and her attorneys have produced what they claim is a “paper trail” proving plagiarism on the part of DreamWorks and scripter David Franzoni. O’Donnell cites in the motion a number of similarities that appear in the “Amistad” script and the book.
Bert Fields, attorney for DreamWorks, on Tuesday characterized the lawsuit as meritless, saying that no one can copyright historical events. Fields, who has read “Echo of Lions” and seen “Amistad,” maintains that no elements from the book made their way into the film.
“It’s nonsense,” Fields told Daily Variety. “I can knock every one of those things out of the park.”
O’Donnell, who is perhaps best known for winning Art Buchwald’s lawsuit against Paramount Pictures over the genesis for “Coming to America,” filed a detailed 96-page motion rife with minutiae of the five-year development cycle of the project.
“Since the Art Buchwald case, I’ve probably turned down 250 cases like this,” O’Donnell told Daily Variety. “This is the first meritorious case I’ve seen in a decade.”
The motion for a preliminary injunction, filed Monday in U.S. District Court, seeks to have the Dec. 10 release of the film blocked until a resolution on the litigation. The court is set to hear the motion on Dec. 15, but Chase-Riboud’s attorney will ask the court to hear arguments before the film opens.
But the granting of such motions is rare, and successful bids tend to center on similarities in paid ads for a film, one-sheet artwork or the use without consent of copyrighted images in the pic. The injunction has a shot of being granted if Chase-Riboud’s lawyers can prove “Amistad” infringed on the book, a process that would include the court screening the film.
Chase-Riboud filed a $10 million lawsuit on Oct. 16, claiming DreamWorks lifted characters, incidents and relationships from her book, a 1989 historical novel that chronicles a true-life revolt aboard a Spanish slave ship.
She claimed that a close friend, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, sent a pre-publication manuscript to Spielberg in 1988 and that Chase-Riboud met with execs at Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. The execs later advised the scribe they were passing on the project.
In the motion, O’Donnell charts 14 story or character similarities between the book and the film. The motion also asserts that there are several historical “errors” that appear in the screenplay, which the motion suggests “includes the unique fingerprints of Chase-Riboud’s own making.” These similarities are listed under a heading in the motion dubbed “Conclusive Proof of Actual Copying.”
One of the motion’s documents is a 1992 deal that Dustin Hoffman’s Punch Prods. entered into with screenwriter Benjamin Pettis to develop a film dubbed “the ‘Echos of Lions’ project.”
In his declaration, filed along with the injunction motion, Pettis said he pitched the idea to Punch after reading Chase-Riboud’s book and that in July 1994 Punch proceeded to develop the film. Barry Levinson and Quincy Jones were attached as director and producer, respectively, and when Warner Bros became interested, the studio recommended Franzoni pen the screenplay.
In February 1995, Pettis received a letter from Lee Gottsegen, prexy of Punch, describing Franzoni as “our writer” on “Echo of Lions.” A month later, Pettis said, he received a letter from Greenberg, Glusker, Fields, Claman & Machtinger, who repped Punch, stating that the production company was abandoning the project.
As a result of the WB link to the project, the motion asserts that Franzoni, who has sole screenplay credit on “Amistad,” was aware, had access and even copied sections of Chase-Riboud’s book. However, Franzoni’s attorney said the scripter never read “Echo of Lions.”
DreamWorks attorney Fields said, “Nothing was taken from the book and the Pettis declaration is a red herring. It has nothing to do with the (lawsuit’s claims) and shows how bankrupt their lawsuit is.”