Billy Wilder once defined an associate producer as “anyone who would associate with a producer.”Quips like that are increasingly tempting to make, given how much muscle producers have lost as their place in the Hollywood food chain evolves. The depths to which the successors of Selznick have sunk are clearly articulated in a recent court ruling in favor of Columbia Pictures. The ruling follows a lawsuit by book publisher and film producer Michael Viner against Columbia Pictures over the still-unmade film version of “I Dream of Jeannie.” In 1994, Viner and partner Sidney Sheldon, whose company created the “Jeannie” TV series, brought the material to Columbia. In 1998, Sheldon and Viner, partners in Dove Productions, were designated as executive producers. After Columbia moved ahead with drafts of the screenplay without consulting Viner, he sued over what he claimed was breach of contract. In her Aug. 25 ruling for the defendant, retired judge Diane Wayne found that “Viner’s consultation rights are not absolute. Rather, Columbia Pictures maintains the sole authority to make all final decisions relating to the production of the film.” Later, she added that Viner’s “executive producership … may have been readily exploited had he never entered into a contract with Columbia Pictures.” She also chastised Viner for requesting a copy of the script from “Jeannie” producer Sid Ganis, not the senior vice president of legal affairs, “as the agreement mandates.” In other words, one of the producers who initiated a feature project at a major studio winds up excluded from the production process. Wilder would no doubt be amused.