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Living on credit

I greatly admired Robert Redford’s new movie, “Quiz Show,” but one detail left me downright quizzical. As the interminable production credits paraded past , I asked myself why it would take 11 — count ’em, 11 — producers to create this movie? Did all 11 stand around on the set, advising Redford — a rather obdurate chap even under ideal conditions — how to direct a scene? Then I asked myself another question: If I were only one of 11 producers on a film, how much money would I pay to have my name removed from the credits.

When I started investigating, of course, I found my original information was incomplete. There were, in fact, 14 producers on the show, and three had indeed asked that their names be removed: Richard Goodwin, Barry Levinson and Mark Johnson.

It required several weeks to work out a viable device for listing all the credits — which would be co-producers, executive producers, “also produced by” producers and so forth. When one refused to go along with the settlement, the entire “grid” had to be painstakingly reconstructed.

The whole issue of credits has become a hot button lately. As the development process grows ever more convoluted, and development hell less hospitable, the few projects that manage to emerge all but drown in a sea of credits. Whenever a film ignites any sort of public response, a dispute promptly breaks out as to who was responsible — who really came up with the idea, who really wrote it, who produced it, etc.

When as many as 35 writers toil on a script, such as “The Flintstones,” how do you really determine who supplied the creative spark?

“Quiz Show” was certainly one project that had an astonishing number of parents. There was a high-concept comedy at Disney called “One for the Money” that wasn’t going anywhere. There was a TriStar project involving Levinson, Johnson and Fred Zollo, among others, that was banished into turnaround. There was a documentary involving a filmmaker named Julian Krainin. Along the way even Richard Dreyfuss and his producing partner, Judith James, joined the flotilla of producers.

Despite all these would-be captains, the ship was still going nowhere until Redford signed on. And Redford, a man who hardly needs another credit, promptly insisted on being producer plus director.

Whether they’re stars or neophytes, most denizens of Hollywood today are credit-hungry. On those not infrequent occasions when a studio decides to “buy out” someone’s credit — that is, pay to remove a name from a project — the buyout price often amounts to twice the original fee.

In some cases, to be sure, companies simply ignore the contracts and invent their own rules. Such was allegedly the case in a fascinating dispute that was resolved last week — a case in which the court actually attached a specific monetary value to a credit.

In the judgment of Los Angeles Superior Court judge Richard C. Hubbell, the Samuel Goldwyn Co. will be required to pay $ 3.3 million plus legal costs to a small British video company named Virgin Vision to cover damages involved in removing Virgin Vision’s name from foreign prints of “sex, lies and videotape.” Having entered into a deal with Virgin Vision covering certain foreign territories, Goldwyn acted in “willful, deliberate or in conscious disregard for the plaintiff’s rights” by turning their back on Virgin Vision, said the court.

“The judgment was a much-needed reminder that the big guy can’t push the little guy around,” says Bill Tennant, theAmerican who heads Virgin Vision and spent well over $ 1 million over four years on the lawsuit. What Goldwyn was doing, he insists, amounted to “a contemporary version of claim jumping.” Goldwyn Co. naturally disagrees and plans to pursue a variety of appeals.

In arguing for substantial damages, David Held, the expert witness for Virgin Vision and a former chief of business affairs for Paramount, brought forth elaborate documentation to demonstrate that credits can be “more important than any monetary compensation” because, among other things, they serve as the basis for an artist’s reputation. In disputes involving producers or writers, he pointed out, a considerable body of precedent has been established whereby the cavalier denial of credits results in doubling the financial payout. In the case of Goldwyn, invocation of the Lanham Act triggered a tripling of damages.

“The law of the jungle would prevail if not for decisions like this,” insists Tennant, and he has a point. Practitioners of the “sue me” school of dealmaking have proliferated in the entertainment business — that is, commitments are made only to be ignored with the casual remark, “So sue me.” The Kim Basinger case put a chill over relations between actors and producers — performers are no longer quite so glib about squirming out of a meeting with a vague “I’ll do it!” Those three words can now put one in a courtroom, albeit four or five years later.

While I’m glad “the law of the jungle” has taken a setback, I nonetheless wonder whether the few real producers left in Hollywood shouldn’t marshal a little jungle law of their own to sort out the credits issue. Old-timers like Hal Wallis or David O. Selznick would turn overin their graves if they could see the assortment of characters who getproducer credit today. The lineup embraces brothers-in-law, development assistants, production managers, stunt doubles — whoever the stars or star directors decided to muscle onto the credit list.

The result is the sort of melange we see on “Quiz Show”: a list of helpmates that turns the issue of who contributed what into one big Quiz Show.

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