Spoiler alert: not all movies succeed.
In any given year, the bombs will outnumber the blockbusters, much to the dismay of the companies fronting the cash (and that doesn’t even count all the movies that “lose money” on paper). American treasury bonds may no longer be AAA gold-plated, but you better believe they’re a safer bet than financing a movie — just ask every pro athlete who went bankrupt investing their multi-million dollar advance into a pet motion picture project. But not everybody who watches their investment wither and die at the hands of unforgiving reviewers and uninterested audiences is willing to just walk away. For these investors, there is recoupment by litigation (and entertainment lawyers everywhere rejoiced!).
Consider the financiers of the movie Free Style, who filed a lawsuit last week in hopes of salvaging their investment in the box office bomb. Unsurprisingly, the suit names the producers as defendants, alleging that they made misrepresentations about the marketing budget and the scope of the movie’s release. More interestingly, though, the financiers are going directly after star Corbin Bleu (of High School Musical fame, for those of you without tweenage daughters), alleging that he failed to honor an agreement to provide interviews to promote the film. As a result, say the money men, after they loaned $8.57 million, the movie only earned $1.3 million from all sources including foreign distribution and DVD sales. (If you’re thinking that’s not so bad, chew on this: the movie earned only $463 on opening weekend in the United States. Yes, 463 dollars, no zeros added. The investors might have been better off selling their collectible Barbies on eBay that weekend.)
Since you’ve likely never heard of the movie (case in point?), here’s a synopsis: “High School Musical’s Corbin Bleu trades in his dancing shoes for a helmet in this family film. InFree Style, young Cale (Bleu) gives his all in his effort to be on the Grand National Motocross racing team, while his mother (Penelope Ann Miller), sister (The Game Plan’s Madison Pettis), and girlfriend (Sandra Echeverria) cheer him on.”
I’ll give you a moment while you toggle over to Netflix to add the DVD to your queue. You’re welcome.
So, having taken the unusual step of suing the star of their film, what hurdles do the investors face in proving their case against Bleu?
The difficulty in this type of case isn’t so much establishing whether Bleu failed to honor his commitment — if he was obligated to do interviews and didn’t, establishing that is pretty straightforward. Instead, the hard part is proving that the alleged damages (here, $12 million) were actually caused by the alleged breach — in other words, the investors must prove that Bleu’s failure to sit down for interviews is part of what killed the movie and that had Bleu provided interviews, it would have increased the movie’s revenues. (Presumably, they’ll also need to prove that somebody actually cared to interview Bleu about the darn thing.)
On the one hand, Bleu will be able to point to other factors that may have discouraged moviegoers from racing out (pun intended) to see Free Style. For starters, maybe the fact that the movie received a measly 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, or that Roger Ebert called it “remorselessly formulaic?” (Of course, that puts Bleu in the awkward position of basically arguing that his movie was just lousy, but that may be a small price to pay when $12 million is at stake.) On the other hand, positive critical reviews aren’t always necessary to rake in the dough (hello, The Smurfs), and the financiers may be able to persuade a judge or jury that some well-placed interviews by Bleu on TV or in Tiger Beat would have made a difference. (Yes, I did just Google Tiger Beat to make sure it still exists since I haven’t read it
But Free Style played in only 260 theaters. By comparison, a “wide release” is usually over 3,000 theaters, so even moviegoers jonesing to see the movie (because really, what kind of heartless monster wouldn’t be moved by Corbin Bleu’s motocross dreams?) may well have been unable to find it anywhere. While that could potentially help the investors’ case against the producers (if the financiers are able to prove that misrepresentations were made on how widespread the release would be), it cuts against the argument that Bleu’s failure to provide interviews was what killed the movie. And of course, star interviews are just one part of the promotion of a movie. Investors would probably have an easier time proving that an overall marketing campaign was hopelessly flawed (or, for that matter, that production of the movie was botched) than they would proving that a single actor was to blame. But as any number of producers, directors, or actors in this town have argued — probably while doing the backstroke in a Scrooge McDuck-like swimming pool filled with money — just being bad at your job or making a bad movie usually doesn’t amount to a breach of contract.
Like so many people in this world, Bleu can perhaps take some comfort in Paris Hilton. Aspreviously covered here on Law Law Land, investors in the Paris Hilton flop Pledge This! sued the celebutante-actress-model-reality-TV-star-entrepreneur-musician-reason-for-the-word-“hyphenate,” claiming that her failure to promote the movie caused them $8.3 million in damages. U.S. District Judge Moreno found that this damages claim was speculative, interpreted as “The movie just sucked. Period.” Of course, that didn’t stop Moreno from calling the suit his “best case forever” — or Hilton from informing Moreno that he was her “best judge forever.” (In case you were wondering, Pledge This! got a seemingly impossible 0% on Rotten Tomatoes, so the Bleu lawsuit has a slight leg up there.)
However, Judge Moreno also ruled that Hilton had breached her contract and valued her promotional services at $160,000. In other words, while the judge didn’t attribute the failure of the movie itself to Hilton’s lack of promotion, he did find that she had been paid a specific amount to promote the movie and breached that obligation.
The Hilton case ultimately settled, but Judge Moreno’s ruling sheds some light on how a court might view the case against Bleu. Even if the plaintiffs can’t prove that the movie failed because of Bleu, if they can prove that a specific amount was allocated to pay Bleu for promotion he did not do, Bleu could be on the hook on that basis. Still, as in Hilton’s case, the damages for that claim would presumably be much less than what the investors are currently seeking.
In the meantime, just in case, perhaps Bleu will work overtime to promote Nurse 3D.