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‘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.”

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