Originally ran June 28, 1998
SINCE EVERYONE KNOWS that the only people who win lawsuits are the lawyers, why do they keep suing?
For insight into this question, look no further than the Francis Ford Coppola vs. Warner Bros. suit, which went to the jury Thursday.
No one who has read the testimony would suggest that this case illuminates any profound points of law. Rather, it illustrates the sheer nastiness of doing business in Hollywood. It has elements of blood feud, vendetta and other “Godfathery” nuances.
As I reviewed the proceedings recently, I tried to put myself in the position of the typical government postal worker who finds himself glumly doing jury duty, trying to figure out why these rich people are beating up on each other.
Here are some of the issues the postal worker had to confront in this case:
COPPOLA, A RICH and fabled director, makes a producing deal at Warner Bros. to develop a movie based on the children’s classic “Pinocchio.” He envisions a story in which a teacher and a group of children are escaping Nazism during World War II, and, even as they are on the run, the teacher reads from the famous old story. The film would incorporate live action, animation, music and special effects.
Sounds like a worthy movie, the postal worker tells himself. Let’s hear more.
Coppola makes a deal at Warner Bros. to produce the film. He doesn’t sign it, though. The unsigned deal sits on his lawyer’s desk for over a year.
Interesting custom in Hollywood, the postal worker concludes. People go to the trouble of making deals, but they’re too rich to bother signing them.
Coppola approves the hiring of a writer, Frank Galati, develops his script and submits that script to Warner Bros. He also asks for a directing deal comparable to the one he had at Columbia, where he had just completed a version of “Dracula.” He wants $5 million against 15% of the gross.
Warner Bros. reads the script and the deal and is unhappy with both. OK, says the postal worker, a studio has a right to say no. They probably enjoy it.
Coppola becomes impatient. In a burst of creative energy, he writes his own script to “Pinocchio.” But since Warner Bros. wouldn’t make his directing deal, he decides to take it to a more hospitable environment — namely, back to Columbia. Columbia says yes.
I can understand his logic, reasons the postal worker. If one place doesn’t like you, try another. I wish the same applied to post offices.
COLUMBIA FORGES AHEAD and closes a deal. Trouble is, they want the underlying rights. Warner Bros. again says “no.” They hold the rights and want something for giving them up.
Coppola says, you’re blocking my movie. We didn’t even have a deal.
Warners says, we had a deal. You just didn’t sign it.
Coppola says, you’re being mean-spirited. The only reason you’re trying to block me is that Bob Daly (the Warner Bros. co-CEO) doesn’t like me.
The postal worker says, wait a minute. This is getting mean. Everyone’s arguing about deals — how about making movies? In my line of work, I’ve got mail to sort. I don’t want to waste my time debating whether every stamp is sufficiently licked.
Coppola gives it one more try. Look, I even have the co-financing in place at Columbia. A French company named Chargeurs wants to do “Pinocchio.” At Columbia I have a deal, I have the money, all I need is the rights.
Warner Bros. says, sorry, fella. We may even go ahead some day and try to develop another script.
Coppola says, you’re standing in the way of art. I want $22 million in damages.
The postal worker says these people are all whacko. I mean, if Coppola wanted to switch his project from Warners to Columbia, why didn’t he submit his draft to Warners, get them to say no, and then clear the rights?
If I had to work with people like this, he concludes, I think I’d go postal.
The final indignity: The French who wanted to finance “Pinocchio” ended up putting their money into “Showgirls” instead. Then they went postal.