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Hollywood’s legal evils

<b>The Back Lot:</b> Who's suing whom?

“I’ve finally admitted to myself that I am afraid of my own lawyer.”

A producer confided that to me the other day, and I found myself not only empathizing, but agreeing. We both dwell within an entertainment industry that has become mind-bendingly litigious. An ill-conceived phone call can inadvertently trigger a chain of events (and bills) far beyond anyone’s expectations.

We all pay through the nose because of this phenomenon; indeed, the entire dealmaking process has become semi-paralyzed as lawyers zealously work to out-smart each other (and us).

Today, conglomerates like Viacom routinely threaten to sue online players like YouTube over the use of video clips. Moguls like Philip Anschutz sue bestselling authors like Clive Cussler when their projects don’t perform.

Lawyers even sue other lawyers over the division of fees, even when those suits reveal practices that embarrass both sides. When Barry Hirsch sued his old Jackoway firm, we all learned that law firms routinely reduce their “written-in-stone” 5% fees in order to retain their movie stars (Nicole Kidman got away with a puny $350,000-a-year retainer) and that an actress like Rachel McAdams has to pay her firm more than 5% because her “complete service” agreement didn’t cover items like estate planning.

The Anschutz-Cussler battle over “Sahara,” which finally went to court last week, is indicative of the emerging gridlock. Anschutz, the Denver billionaire (who made a killing on “Chronicles of Narnia”), claims Cussler failed to honor his $10 million contract by denigrating “Sahara” in public and that he also falsely exaggerated his book sales.

Cussler had sued Anschutz for failing to honor his rights of script and cast approval. The bestselling author, it seems, had made script revisions, which Anschutz didn’t like, and also had his own ideas about casting.

Most of all, Cussler was pissed that “Sahara” turned out to be a lousy movie, supposedly hurting the value of his other works.

In times past, disagreements like this would be buried and everyone would get on with their lives. Today, disputes end up in litigation, with Anschutz’s attorneys claiming that his company lost $80 million on “Sahara” (even though the film grossed $122 million worldwide).

It’s hard to figure out what anyone, except the lawyers, will gain from a suit like this. Authors almost always heap disdain upon the films adapted from their novels, but, going back to Homer, they’ve learned to bitch to their agents and then shut up.

“Studios are making a mistake in not basing more of their films on bestselling books,” one production chief told me not long ago. But the “Sahara” controversy provides insight into what’s gone wrong with this process.

“Hot” books once provided the backbone of the movie industry going back to “Birth of a Nation” (based on a bestseller “The Clansman” by the Rev. Thomas Dixon) through the days of “Gone With the Wind.” The authors usually worked with the studio in promoting the final product – even the Rev. Dixon was a hot item on the promotion trail.

The great success of “Love Story” in 1970 reflected the zenith of this business model. Paramount bought the script, paid the author to novelize it and picked up the tab for the book’s promotion. Purported “book buyers” were dispatched all over the country to buy sufficient copies to ensure its presence at the top of the bestseller lists (studios in that era knew the names of book stores that reported to the New York Times Book Review). The author, Erich Segal, and the studio were elated when the book and movie both became enormous hits.

To be sure, no lawyers were involved. Since studio, publisher and author were all participating in the payday, there was teamwork instead of litigation (to be sure, Segal didn’t like the way the movie was cast, but kept his peace).

Shortly thereafter, Paramount went through a similar experience with “The Godfather,” buying the property from unfinished galleys and helping subsidize its rise to bestsellerdom.

This sort of amity seemingly is hard to replicate today. Studios are distanced from the authors and rarely push book sales. As the Cussler case reminds us, they don’t even trust the data they elicit from publishers.

The entire process has become a very bumpy road. Come to think of it, last time I published a book I was so nervous I called my lawyer.

Then I thought better of it and took a vacation instead.

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