×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

‘Shape of Water’ Lawsuit Spurs Debate Amid Oscar Voting

Plagiarism claims are a dime a dozen in Hollywood, but the case of Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-contending film “The Shape of Water,” and a lawsuit alleging that it borrowed liberally from a nearly 50-year-old play, reminds that during awards season, the stakes always intensify.

Some Academy voters question the timing of the suit, which was filed Wednesday, the day after Oscar voting began.

“This feels like a last-minute effort to screw over a film’s chance for the Oscar,” one voter said. Voting ends on Tuesday.

In the suit, filed on behalf of a family trust, playwright Paul Zindel’s son David contends that del Toro’s film, “though presented to the public as a highly original work of fantasy/science fiction, in reality, brazenly copies the story, elements, characters and themes” of his late father’s 1969 play “Let Me Hear You Whisper.” The play, about a cleaning woman who attempts to save a dolphin from a military lab, was adapted for television in 1990. (Unlike the creature from “The Shape of Water,” the dolphin never makes it out of the lab in the play. Del Toro insists that he never saw or read Zindel’s work.)

In response to Zindel’s suit, Fox Searchlight suggested in a statement Thursday that the claim was timed to hurt the film’s Oscar chances and stated that the studio would “vigorously defend” itself in court.

“The Zindels came to us on Feb. 14 to let us know that they would file a lawsuit on Feb 20, which is when Oscar ballots were going out. The timing speaks volumes,” said Fox Searchlight co-president Stephen Gilula in an interview. “Academy veterans know very well of the multiples of lawsuits against every successful film — “Avatar,” “E.T.” — so I think there is a sense among them of, ‘Oh boy, here comes another one.’ It’s not a shock. This is almost de rigueur.”

Zindel’s attorney, Marc Toberoff, said Searchlight’s claim was absurd: “There’s no conspiracy here to interfere with the Oscars,” he said. “This is a deflection…David Zindel has no dog in the race.” In fact, Toberoff, adds, “It’s not in our interest to to derail the film by causing it to receive less awards. The more Oscars it receives, the more profitable it will be.” (Del Toro is considered the frontrunner to win best director and the film in pole position to win picture).

Zindel finds the overlaps between the film and his father’s play too numerous to chalk up to coincidence.

“There’s about 70 similarities. You’ve left the category of homage. You have to start thinking outright theft,” he said.

“We have faith that Academy voters will see through a transparent attempt to pressure us to make a payment to an undeserving party during awards season,” said Fox Searchlight co-president Nancy Utley.

In late December, buzz started to percolate online when some viewers of “The Shape of Water” saw an uncanny resemblance to the 1969 play, which aired on public television and later on A&E in a version starring Jean Stapleton. Zindel told Variety that in early January when he and his wife watched a screener of “Shape,” they “very quickly realized this was a very serious situation.”

Zindel said that he reached out to Fox Searchlight in mid-January to express concerns but was met with “inertia.” He added: “We eventually realized we were not going to get anywhere trying to talk to them…we had to act.” Toberoff said he was hired Feb. 14 and filed the lawsuit, which asks for monetary damages dependent on the film’s profits, as soon as he could.

Zindel, who runs a book publishing company, claims he is not motivated by animosity but is simply standing up for his father’s rights. “I have no ill will towards del Toro,” he says. “He’s a very accomplished filmmaker and it’s a good film. The problem is, a fair amount of it is taken from my dad’s play.”

A year after the PR nightmare of Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation,” Fox Searchlight is eager to avoid controversial waters this awards season. In September, following outrage over Alamo Drafthouse’s rehiring of a film blogger who had previously been accused of sexual assault, the studio pulled the film “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” from a planned opening-night bow at the Alamo-affiliated Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas.

Will a late-breaking controversy matter in the Oscar race’s final calculation?

“I don’t think anything like this changes anybody’s mind,” another Academy voter said. “People either like the film or they don’t. What Guillermo put on screen is what he put on screen. It’s not this other guy’s work.”

More Film

  • Fyre Festival Caterer Receives Thousands in

    Unpaid Fyre Festival Caterer Raises Thousands in Donations on GoFundMe

    As two Fyre Festival documentaries hit the airwaves, a couple who say their credit was ruined due to the Fyre Festival’s lack of payment for their services have raised $54,381 at time of publication on GoFundMe. Elvis and Maryann Rolle wrote on their page that they catered “no less than 1000 meals per day” in [...]

  • DF-10956_R – Gwilym Lee (Brian May) and

    'Bohemian Rhapsody' Producer Confirms Bryan Singer's Reason for Leaving, Says 'No One' Was Attached to Play Mercury

    “Bohemian Rhapsody” producer Graham King provided insight into some of the events surrounding the Golden Globe-winning film Saturday at the Producers Guild Awards Nominees Breakfast, including director Bryan Singer’s departure from the film partway through production. “It’s an unfortunate situation, with like 16, 17 days to go and Bryan Singer just had some issues, his [...]

  • Author Tony Mendez arrives at the

    Tony Mendez, Former CIA Officer Depicted in 'Argo,' Dies at 78

    Tony Mendez, the former CIA technical operations officer who orchestrated the 1980 rescue of six American diplomats from Iran and who was portrayed by Ben Affleck in the Academy Award winning film “Argo,” has died. He was 78. Mendez’s book agent, Christy Fletcher, announced the news on Twitter Saturday morning. “Early this morning, Antonio (Tony) [...]

  • Glass Movie

    'Glass' to Rank in Top 3 MLK Debuts With $48 Million

    M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass” is on its way to a solid debut with an estimated $48 million for the four-day Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. A sequel to 2000’s “Unbreakable” and 2017’s “Split,” the Universal superhero thriller should bring in around $41 million from 3,841 domestic locations over the Friday through Sunday period. The estimates are [...]

  • China's 'Three Adventures of Brooke' to

    China's 'Three Adventures of Brooke' to Hit French Theaters (EXCLUSIVE)

    Midnight Blur Films has signed a deal with French distributor Les Acacias to release Chinese arthouse drama “Three Adventures of Brooke” in France this year, the Chinese production company told Variety on Saturday. A release date has yet to be set for the film, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival and stars Chinese newcomer Xu Fangyi [...]

  • Noe Debre On His Directorial Debut,

    Top French Screenwriter Noe Debre Makes Directorial Debut, ‘The Seventh Continent’

    This last half-decade, few French screenwriters have run up such an illustrious list of co-write credits as Noé Debré. Thomas Bedigain’s writing partner on Jacques Audiard’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Deephan,” Debra co-penned Bedigain’s own debut, “The Cowboys,” “Racer and the Jailbird,” by Michael Roskam, and “Le Brio,” directed by Yvan Attal. He has now [...]

  • Julien Trauman Talks Survival-Thriller Short ‘At

    Julien Trauman on Survival-Thriller Short ‘At Dawn’

    France’s Julien Trauman has never been afraid to play with genre, and in his latest short, the MyFrenchFilmFestival participant “At Dawn,” he employs aspects of psychological thriller, survival, coming-of-age and fantasy filmmaking. “At Dawn” kicks off the night before when a group of teens, one about to leave town, are imbibing heavily around a beach-side [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content