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‘Amistad’ accusers fire back

Monday court date will determine whether film's bow will be blocked.

With a Monday court date looming to determine whether release of the DreamWorks film “Amistad” should be blocked, attorneys for Barbara Chase-Riboud filed a reply Wednesday intended to debunk the studio’s claims that it was the author, not the film’s writer, who lifted fictionalized parts of the story about a revolt aboard a Spanish slave ship in 1839.

Attorneys for Chase-Riboud claim the 88 story similarities between Chase-Riboud’s “Echo of Lions” and an earlier work, “Black Mutiny,” cited by DreamWorks lawyers in their opposition papers, are contained in the historical record of 1839-1841.

The studio claims “Mutiny,” published in 1954, was the film’s source material, not 1989’s “Echo.”

The claims, which stopped short of accusing Chase-Riboud of plagiarism, were contained in papers filed Nov. 25 by attorneys for DreamWorks in response to Chase-Riboud’s request for a preliminary injunction to halt the film’s Dec. 10 bow.

But DreamWorks attorneys said Wednesday they have been exploring Chase-Riboud’s other books for similarities to published works, and have discovered that a passage in her 1994 book “President’s Daughter” also appears —- verbatim — in “Passing,” a book written by Nella Larson and published in 1929.

The DreamWorks response also contained an affidavit from Steven Spielberg, the film’s director, who said he did not see Chase-Riboud’s book and that blocking the film’s release would “be a tragedy for our company, but I believe it would also be a serious loss to the American public.”

The studio said it would lose more than $75 million in costs if the film’s bow is blocked.

But Pierce O’Donnell, one of Chase-Riboud’s attorneys, said “the social significance or artistic merit of a copyright-infringing movie does not trump Chase-Riboud’s interests in protecting her copyrighted book.”

O’Donnell’s reply to the studio’s opposition motion, filed Wednesday in U.S District Court, paints DreamWorks execs as circling the wagons to protect the first film from Spielberg under his studio’s own banner.

“We have nailed copying and they have admitted access,” O’Donnell said late Wednesday. “There are too many overwhelming similarities. I’m frankly nauseated at the degree to which DreamWorks is willing to stoop to conquer. Are they trying to win this case or deter other writers from bringing claims?”

DreamWorks’ lawyers claimed in their reply that some of the film’s characters are composites of historical figures; while Chase-Riboud claims she created the characters. Her counsel also asserted that alterations were made in the film that differ from the shooting script “resulting in a telling change.”

“This doctoring of the script after the suit was filed is a fingerprint of DreamWorks’ illicit copying of ‘Echo of Lions,’ O’Donnell said in the reply papers. Chase-Riboud’s lawyers obtained a copy of the script during the lawsuit’s discovery phase and recently viewed the film.

O’Donnell’s papers also call into question the source material used by “Amistad” scribe David Franzoni, who claimed he relied on “Black Mutiny,” the book optioned by producer Debbie Allen almost 10 years before Chase-Riboud’s book was published.

Franzoni, in a declaration, said he “never read the book because of his practice not to read works of fiction when working on historical (stories).” But O’Donnell’s reply noted that “Franzoni fails to offer a single comment about any similarities. … While DreamWorks experts have concocted a slew of rationalizations for the similarities, Franzoni fails to validate any of them …

“(He) fails to provide a single insight as to why this court should not find that Joadson (a character in the film) was not copied from “Echo of Lions.” (Chase-Riboud’s book uses the name of Braithwaite for the free black printer abolitionist on which the author claims the film’s Joadson is based.)

O’Donnell asserts that though DreamWorks claims there were “hundreds of black abolitionists,” not one of the “retellings of the ‘Amistad’ story, with the exception of ‘Echo of Lions’ includes any characters even resembling Joadson/Braithwaite.”

“There is not one single thing in ‘Amistad’ that comes from Chase-Riboud’s book,” Bert Fields, DreamWorks’ attorney told Daily Variety. “To the extent that anything in the film (was duplicated), it all comes from ‘Black Mutiny.’ That is why (O’Donnell) is ultimately fated to loose at trial because he cannot prove any similarities between ‘Echo of Lions’ and ‘Amistad.’ ”

The preliminary injunction motion, filed Nov. 15, alleged “conclusive proof of actual copying,” and cited 14 story similarities between the film and “Echo of Lions.” (Daily Variety, Nov. 16).

The 96-page motion, which tracked the film’s development cycle, also attempted to link Franzoni, to the book by offering a chain of events that includes Franzoni being attached to an “Echo of Lions’ project” at Warner Bros.

In October, attorneys for Chase-Riboud filed a $10 million lawsuit alleging that DreamWorks lifted the fictionalized — not historical — passages of “Echo of Lions” and incorporated them into the film.

The lawsuit followed settlement negotiations that began in February.

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