‘Pinocchio’ power play

Coppola attorney opens civil case

Setting forth the themes of blood feud and vendetta, Francis Ford Coppola’s attorney told jurors Wednesday they will hear a case about power and the abuse of power.

Portraying Warner Bros. in almost “Godfather”-esque terms, attorney Robert Chapman said the studio used its might to destroy Coppola’s dream of making a live-action version of the children’s classic “Pinocchio.” The studio killed the movie, Chapman said, to teach the famously maverick director a lesson.

Chapman told the jury in L.A. Superior Court that in the early ’90s Coppola was lured back to Warners with promises that things had changed since his bad experiences there a decade earlier.

Chapman said Coppola started to work on “Pinocchio” while his lawyers tried to negotiate a deal. The deal reached an impasse when Coppola asked for $5 million to direct and 15% of the gross — the deal he had just gotten from Columbia Pictures on the highly successful “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”

Coppola’s position throughout this lawsuit has been that there never was a deal with Warners. The studio has disputed this, pointing to a producing agreement that was annotated by both sides but never signed, as well as a signed certificate of employment.

Although the judge ruled prior to trial in Coppola’s favor that these agreements were unenforceable, Chapman’s opening remarks suggest that much of the case will be consumed with that perennial question, “When’s a deal a deal?”

After a year and a half at Warners during which a script was written, Coppola concluded the project was going nowhere. In 1993, his attorney notified Warners that there was no deal on “Pinocchio.” Warners promptly told him that Coppola had an agreement with the studio.

The helmer nonetheless took a “brand-new ‘Pinocchio’ script” to Columbia. Under Coppola’s deal with Col, the studio would pay $26 million and Coppola would sell the foreign rights. According to Chapman, Col was unconcerned about the project’s previous history at Warners.

But a short time later, Chapman said, Warners notified Columbia that it had a prior deal with Coppola. After that, Col made the project contingent on resolution of the Warner Bros. situation, and Coppola’s foreign financing fell apart because of Warner’s interference. By the end of 1994, ” ‘Pinocchio’ was dead.”

Coppola is seeking $22 million in damages, which includes $9.2 million in lost fees. The remainder, which is sure to be challenged as speculative, is the portion of the gross Coppola would have received on “Pinocchio” if he had the same deal and the same boxoffice as “Dracula.”

Warners will make its opening statement today. Coppola is expected to be the first witness.