Friday, March 24, 2006

Movie Contracts and the Danger of Success

I realize I’ve gone a little Hollywood here lately, but this script I wrote back in 2000 has been revived after a leading director said it was the best title he’d ever heard. As a result, I am working on a new contract, while reading the daily news stories about Hollywood lawsuits and how things go wrong.
Now Randy Quaid is suing for 10 million because the producers of Brokeback Mountain told him it would be an art-house film, and therefore he worked for too little. This illustrates the need for incentive clauses, and Brokeback Mountain was one picture where you should have been aware of the back end.
But this is no time for cheap jokes. Unfortunately, a certain late night talk show host is off this week, leaving me less outlet for humor.
Here’s my impression of Hollywood: Any big success generates behavior similar to a criminal gang after a big score in a bank heist. When it is time to divide the loot, suddenly gang members go missing. Everyone turns on each other and then everyone sues.
Earlier this week I cited the example of “Chicago” where one of the producers - who won an Oscar by the way - now claims he was never paid from his incentive clause. In fact, the producer claims he has made less than 500 grand from a picture that grossed 300 million. I reported that Harvey Weistein – whom I actually met one time – was involved as the co-owner of Miramax, the studio that made the film. Harvey and his brother no longer own Miramax throwing more of a twist into proceedings. How big are these people? The witness to the signing of the agreement was Madonna.
So this sounds like a case of having the contract and still getting stiffed. My people tell me the makers of “Lord of the Rings” are also battling it out.
What have I learned here? As I understand it, if my script is made by a studio and the movie has a budget of 20 million, I am supposed to receive 500 grand. However, if an Oscar winning producer only received that much from “Chicago” I have a distinct feeling I will never get paid that money. I will be offered less or the opportunity to sue for the real sum.
Hollywood is a nasty place. Success is met with vast amounts of legal hassles that only benefit the lawyers. My old analogy is that everyone starts acting like a gang of criminals after the big job. They even made a movie about it: Good Fellas. My best hope is that this script is rejected before I get in some real trouble - the legal equivalent of getting whacked.
Since Randy Quaid is suing over “Brokeback Mountain” perhaps that movie provides a better analogy for what happens to you after you sign a movie contract and the film is a success. Ouch. Talk about getting stiffed.


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