Testimony opens in Shelton-Fox feud

Writer-director Ron Shelton testified Wednesday that then-Fox Studio chairman Joe Roth offered him “the best gross definition in town,” but said he never saw the deal memos concerning his three-picture pact with 20th until he filed his lawsuit, maintaining the paperwork he later received did not reflect the terms of his deal as he understood them.

Shelton was the opening witness in the trial of his lawsuit against the studio concerning his deal on “White Men Can’t Jump.” Shelton asserts he is owed 50% of the film’s estimated $36 million profit under the terms of a handshake deal he made with Roth (Daily Variety, March 25).

Under cross examination by attorney Lou Meisinger, who is representing the studio, Shelton admitted the studio fulfilled every other responsibility under his deal, including the payment of $2.5 million as part of his upfront compensation.

A jury of 10 women and two men will be asked to decide whether the studio honored the terms of its deal with Shelton or if was he cheated out of profits derived from the box office and ancillary sales of “White Men.”

But Shelton’s agent, Geoffrey Sanford, testified on direct examination from Shelton’s lawyer Bryan Lysaght that Roth promised a “state-of-the-art deal” that would include “meaningful backend compensation.”

Frenzied time

At the time of Roth’s appointment in 1989, studios were fiercely competitive, thanks to a handful of new players, such as Sony, entering the deal-making fray. Bigger and better deals were being inked in Hollywood, such as Carolco’s doubling screenwriter points, and studios were in a talent-buying frenzy.

According to Sanford, Roth wanted to “jumpstart the studio” and send a message to the creative community that “he was director-friendly.” He intended to do this by offering deals that creative talent couldn’t get elsewhere.

Sanford said Roth couldn’t offer first-dollar gross but would get Shelton a deal that featured “as close as possible to first-dollar gross.”

He also offered Shelton two “put” pictures to sweeten the deal. The pics would be greenlit so long as the budgets were under $16 million, without consideration to script or attached elements.

Shelton also would get $1 million per film to write; $1.3 million to $1.7 million to direct each film and $500,000 to produce each of the pics under the three-picture deal, Sanford testified.

Sanford said that when the studio’s business affairs execs became involved in the process, he wasn’t overly concerned when the deal memo didn’t reflect the terms or when the longform agreement was slow in being created.

Sanford testified that execs in the studio’s legal department told him they were besieged with new deals and were having difficulty keeping up, which was why the longform contracts were delayed.

No concerns

When asked by Lysaght if he was concerned about the delay in getting the longform agreement despite his repeated requests and that the film was already in production, he replied, “No. We were friends and I trusted Joe.”

Outside the courtroom Meisinger suggested the outcome of the case was not going to break new legal ground.

“(The studio accounting practices) are not an issue,” Meisinger told Daily Variety. “This case is about a specific deal that Ron Shelton claims to have made. There are no wide-ranging implications here.”