Warners fires back at Coppola

Exex refute claims of animosity toward helmer

Warner Bros. rolled out the big guns last week to tell its side of the story in the suit Francis Coppola has brought against the studio over the ill-fated “Pinocchio” project.

Warner chairman Terry Semel was called by Coppola’s lawyers as a hostile witness, but that strategy may have backfired.

Hammering at the claim that the studio killed the movie because of animosity toward the famed director, Coppola attorney Robert Chapman quizzed Semel about why he failed to respond to a “personal” letter that the filmmaker had written to him and Warner co-chair Bob Daly. Earlier, Coppola had told the jury he wrote the letter in an attempt to work out the problems on the picture “man to man.”

But Semel responded, “I didn’t consider it a personal letter. Very few people send me a personal letter and copy their lawyers and agents.” Indeed, the letter is copied to Coppola’s lawyer Barry Hirsch and to Michael Ovitz, then head of CAA, where Coppola was a client at the time.

While Coppola the businessman was duking it out with Warners, Coppola the director was receiving accolades. The American Film Institute ranked “The Godfather” No. 3 on its list of the 100 greatest films, behind only “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane.”

Also testifying last week was Warner Bros. executive vice president Steve Spira. Spira stated unequivocally that he had an agreement with lawyers Hirsch and Geoffrey Oblath for Coppola to develop “Pinocchio,” and that agreement precluded Coppola from doing the movie for Columbia Pictures.

Despite the much-discussed fact that the long-form agreement was never signed — a commonplace occurrence with high-level talent — Spira said he knew there was a deal because “both sides went to work. Warner Bros. started funding (by hiring scriptwriter Frank Galati), and Mr. Coppola started providing development services.”

Spira, a well-regarded industry veteran, has been cast by Coppola’s team as the henchman of an evil empire because of a letter he sent to Columbia notifying them of Warners’ rights when he learned Coppola was trying to move the project there. That letter, say Coppola’s lawyers, killed the film at Columbia. Warners says Columbia was aware of a rights problem long before it received Spira’s letter.

Also testifying for Warners were business affairs exec Dan Furie and former legal affairs exec Jeremy Williams. The parade of studio execs continues this week with Columbia personnel expected to testify.