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Besson in c’right hell over helmer

'Yamakasi' imbroglio could cost millions

PARIS — Some in France’s auteur-led film community complain that as a producer, Luc Besson is “un-French,” keeping a tight rein on the films he makes while paying little heed to the artistic viewpoint of whichever young film director he happens to be working with.

So there was a hint of Schadenfreude in some Parisian film circles when it emerged last week that Julien Seri, sacked in the middle of shooting the Besson-produced 45 million franc ($6.4 million) “Yamakasi,” and his co-screenwriter Philippe Lyon were claiming damages of 30 million francs ($4.3 million) in a legal suit that threatens to stop the film’s April 4 French release.

And, because of the sometimes bizarre workings of French copyright law, judges could even send the finished film back to the editing room — though observers believe that remedy unlikely.

Moreover, since those same copyright laws consider film as a collective work, and all of the co-authors — the screenwriters, the director and the composer of the soundtrack — as shared owners of the finished work, Lyon is also suing, for $2 million, charging that he wasn’t consulted on the change of director, and that the screenplay he had co-written was “distorted.”

The action comedy is the first pic to be handled by Besson’s new company, Europa. For now, the marketing people are “on standby,” a company source says.

Besson has faced lawsuits in the past, notably a case involving director Kathryn Bigelow over “Joan of Arc,” but he has always emerged without blemish. But the current legal wrangle could be trickier, given copyright and labor laws in France.

Besson has hired the services of the high-flying Paris attorney Georges Kiejman, a former justice minister who was personal friends with the late President Francois Mitterrand. A media specialist, Kiejman’s film biz clients have included a long list of celebrities from Simone Signoret to Robert De Niro.

The facts of the case date back to last year. Besson’s production company, LeeLoo, hired Seri, a talented young TV commercial director, and scripter Lyon to co-write “Yamakasi” with Besson. The producer had already penned a synopsis of the plot inspired by a real-life group of urban acrobats. Seri was also hired to direct.

The Paris shoot last summer went badly. Besson blamed delays on the first-time director’s lack of organization, while Seri blamed the weather — it rained constantly for two weeks during the shoot — and the lack of preparation time. A series of setbacks included the fact that the bare steel girders of a half-erected building that the acrobats were supposed to scale had metamorphosed into a pristine new building by the time the film crew got there.

Seri was sacked in August, six weeks after shooting began, and replaced a few weeks later by experienced director Ariel Zeitoun, who finished the film.

The court case hinges on the inclusion in the final version of footage shot by Seri. At a recent court hearing, Georges Souchon, representing the director, asserted that LeeLoo had breached its copyright contract with Seri when it sacked him, and therefore no longer had the right to use Seri’s shots.

Besson’s lawyers say the roughly 90-minute movie includes about 15 minutes of Seri’s footage, while the plaintiff’s lawyers say it is more than half an hour.

Souchon asked for an injunction against the film’s release unless LeeLoo allowed Seri to re-edit the film himself. It also asks for $2.27 million in damages for the sacked director, taking into account theoretical lost royalties if the film is not released.

But the judges must also factor in the rights of Besson and two other authors, Zeitoun and Joey Starr, the French rapper who composed the music for the film. The trouble-prone Starr is following the case from jail, where he is serving a one-month sentence for illegal possession of a weapon.

Throughout the proceedings, LeeLoo has maintained that Seri was fairly dismissed and that nobody’s copyright contract was breached.

The court says it will deliver its verdict before “Yamakasi’s” French release date.

In a separate action, LeeLoo will be hauled before a labor court on April 5 to answer an unfair dismissal charge brought by Seri. He has asked for $47,000 in unpaid wages. His total fee for directing Yamakasi was $57,000 “the same as he would earn for a commercial,” says his lawyer. Seri and Lyon told the court they each received a little more than $7,000 for the screenplay.

LeeLoo refuses to comment.

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