‘Raging Bull’ suit a red flag to legal eagles

Courts rarely side with efforts to halt production

In its lawsuit to halt Jake LaMotta’s “Raging Bull” sequel, MGM seeks something few courts have granted: an immediate halt to production.

LaMotta, the boxer whose 1970 memoir inspired the Martin Scorsese film released a decade later, wrote a followup tome in 1986 titled “Raging Bull 2.” According to documents filed Tuesday in Los Angeles Superior Court, LaMotta recently sold film rights to the book without first offering it to MGM — which the studio claims breaches a 1976 agreement with the scribe.

RBII Productions has already completed principal photography on the sequel, directed by “Beneath the Darkness” helmer Martin Guigui.

In its suit, MGM seeks to halt production where it stands as well as damages to be determined at trial. But stopping a film mid-production is difficult, in part because it requires proving that the production itself — not just the film’s release — will cause irrevocable harm. Multiple attorneys consulted by Variety could not think of a case in which someone had successfully sued to halt production.

Suing to stop a film’s release, say legal eagles, is the more commonly used option.

“I see lawsuits more often to enjoin release than I see lawsuits to enjoin production,” said Richard L. Charnley, a partner with Ropers Majeski Kohn and Bentley who specializes in entertainment litigation. Furthermore, Charnley said, an injunction to halt a film once the cameras start rolling is much more difficult than an injunction to prevent a film from starting in the first place.

“It’s a lot easier to stop somebody from doing something because that maintains the status quo. It’s a lot more difficult to force somebody to do something.”

Another famous rights dispute — 20th Century Fox’s 2008 lawsuit against Warner Bros. over Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” — sought to halt WB’s distribution of that 2009 film. While the studios eventually reached a settlement that gave Fox gross profit participation on the tentpole, the studio couldn’t halt the pic’s release. But the settlement allowed Fox to profit from the release without taking on production or distribution risk, even though the studio may have preferred to make the film itself or have no film at all. Settling for a share of the pie in instances where the studio would have passed on a film is not uncommon either.

“Payment, or revenue-sharing, is the most likely outcome,” said film and television attorney Peter J. Dekom of the LaMotta case. “I don’t see injunction here. … Let’s say MGM stopped it. Now what? They’re going to negotiate a settlement for revenue sharing or some rights, unless they want the movie, and I don’t actually believe that that’s their goal.”

But MGM has an issue with more than just lost profits on a potential film. It’s also concerned with the value degradation of its Scorsese-helmed picture.

“LaMotta and the RBII Defendants are publicly associating the sequel picture with (‘Raging Bull’) in a manner that is plainly calculated to create confusion in the marketplace and to trade off the value of “Raging Bull” and its associated goodwill, and that will irreparably tarnish the value of (‘Raging Bull’) and MGM’s rights therein,” the suit states.

“You’re talking about a very, very iconic film,” Charnley said of the claim. “If (the sequel) is a really good film, it will help ‘Raging Bull.’ If it’s a bad film, everybody will say, ‘What a bunch of idiots. … And they won’t blame the studio or producers who released the first film.”

United Artists released “Raging Bull” in 1980. Pic, starring Robert De Niro, explores LaMotta’s rise in the boxing world, as well as his personal fall. LaMotta co-authored “Raging Bull II” with Chris Anderson and Sharon McGehee, and the book explores the athlete’s early and later years.