Film and Television

While I most often write on Law Law Land about copyrightsInternet issues, and various things Hollywood, the bread and butter of my practice is employment litigation: more specifically, representing employers who are sued for wrongful termination, discrimination, sexual harassment, and/or wage and hour claims. In California, employment laws tend to favor employees, and like any employer, Hollywood employers are vulnerable to employment lawsuits when they don’t cross their T’s and dot their I’s (and sometimes even when they do).

The Hollywood employment lawsuit du jour was brought against MTV by a former employee on the show The Hills. Do you remember that trip to Costa Rica the cast took for the 100th episode of the show? Yeah, me neither — as much as I love me some Justin Bobby/Audrina drama (almost as much as I love James Franco and Mila Kunis’ spoof of them during the writers’ strike), I just couldn’t stomach K-Cav as leading lady. [Ed. Note: Did any of the last sentence mean anything to you, dear readers? No, me neither.] But this Costa Rica trip will now live on in infamy, not only as the trip where Justin Bobby apparently wore a Confederate flag hat, but also as the trip that fueled this lawsuit.

According to the complaint, Eliza Sproul was a Field Clearance Coordinator/Production Coordinator on The Hills and accompanied Kristin and crew to Costa Rica. There, her employment “took a turn for the worse” when she was allegedly pressured with drugs, sexually harassed, and forced to work long hours until she “essentially broke down” from exhaustion. The complaint was just filed on October 18, so MTV has not yet filed any responsive papers. But I’m going to put on my employment litigator hat for a moment to analyze Ms. Sproul’s claims.
Continue Reading

On behalf of Law Law Land, I would like to apologize to HBO, the New York courts, and basically, the world at large. A few months ago, my colleague Elisabeth Moriarty suggested that a creative Indonesian monkey should, perhaps, be afforded copyright rights in his adorable self-portrait. That suggestion must have angered the intellectual property gods, who have now unleashed their wrath upon the simian world. Some bozo, I recently learned, sued a cartoon ape for purported right of publicity violations and infliction of emotional distress. Rest easy, Magilla — no one is on to you for that failed bank robbery attempt. I’m talking about the lawsuit recently filed by Johnny Devenanzio… (If you are wondering who this Johnny fellow is, don’t worry, you are not alone.)

For those of you who are not MTV reality show devotees, let’s get you up to speed. Johnny got his start on the Real World Key West, a “true story…of eight strangers…picked to live in a house…work together and have their lives taped…to find out what happens…when people stop being polite…and start getting real.” Johnny then appeared on The Challenge — which used to be called The Real World-Road Rules Challenge, at least back when anyone I know cared about The Real World, or Road Rules, or any kind of challenge that might pit the two against each other — and he continued to make a fool of himself on numerous The Challengespin-offs (all of which involved copious amounts of alcohol, the occasional fist fight, and a fair amount of stupidity). These shows portrayed Johnny as an arrogant, scheming meathead who likes to stir up drama, earning him the nickname “Johnny Bananas.” (Ironically, you can also hire Johnny to give lectures on alcohol awareness, humility, and conflict resolution. That sounds like a great idea…)

Now, let’s get to the lawsuit. With a little help from lawyer Stephanie Ovadia (yes, the same lawyer who represented our beloved Lindsay Lohan in some of her most entertaining lawsuitsever), Johnny is suing the people behind the hit HBO series Entourage (R.I.P.). The lawsuit is based on a storyline involving a fictional cartoon called Johnny’s Bananas in which Kevin Dillon’s character, Johnny “Drama” Chase, lends his voice to a cartoon ape, aptly named Johnny, who tends to go “bananas” when things don’t go his way. Angered by this storyline (and likely upset after his lawyer pointed out that he has a striking resemblance — both mentally and physically — to an unattractive, hot-headed cartoon ape), the real-life Johnny is now claiming that HBO is trying to capitalize on a nickname that he “is solely responsible for creating.” (Apparently Johnny needs to brush up on his Chicago mobster trivia, as he’s not the only “Johnny Bananas” around.)

In his complaint, Johnny seeks an injunction to bar HBO, Time Warner Cable, and Entourage creator Doug Ellin from (a) distributing or broadcasting Entourage’s final season in any way, shape, or form, and (b) manufacturing and selling Johnny’s Bananas merchandise. Johnny also seeks compensatory and punitive damages for the tremendous emotional distress he suffered as a result of Entourage’s “offensive and disparaging” use of his nickname. Does Johnny have a shot at victory?
Continue Reading

If there’s any pattern in my blog posts, it’s that they are often inspired by my real-life experiences. This one is no different. Recently, I arrived home around 9 p.m. and was greeted by the sound of machine-gun fire that sounded like it was coming from across the street. My husband was out watching a football game (the rival team I poked fun at here) so I had nobody to confirm if there was, in fact, urban warfare taking over the mean streets of Hancock Park, or if it was jut my imagination. The sound continued intermittently every 15–20 minutes for the next hour, with me jumping out of my seat every time (and our cat jumping out of his seat in the window), until my husband got home and confirmed that it was neither my imagination nor an uprising of disgruntled Larchmont Village bakery-goers: a movie was being filmed on the next block over. Sure enough, I seem to have ignored the giant light hovering over the block, which was so bright it could have lit an entire football field for a nighttime game.

The next morning, I drove by to check it out, and saw the block lined with 1940’s-style cars, including a police car and an ambulance. Some Internet sleuthing revealed that the movie being filmed was Gangster Squad, a period piece slated to come out in 2012 with a star-studded cast including Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and Sean Penn.

My first thought, of course, was, Cool! Maybe I can go stroll by after work and get a glimpse of the filming!

My second thought, since I am obviously a law dork, was, I wonder whether the neighbors have any rights with regard to the movie being filmed there?
Continue Reading

Q: I’m in the process of wrapping up a movie. I just discovered that the title we’ve been using, and the title I love, was the title of a little known [major studio] film from back in the 70s. Can I still use the title?

A: Faithful readers, it’s so nice to be with you again. You may have noticed that the last few blogs from our Q&A team may have contained a few stale references. You may have asked yourself “why are these guys trying so hard to be pop culture relevant by bringing up A Prophettwo years after it was released?” Or “what’s up with the German broccoli references?” Or (for our more avid readers) “I’ve memorized every brilliant word written by these brilliant minds and I know I’ve seen this brilliant blog before!” Well, faithful readers, we were tired of watching all you independent documentarians and shoestring filmmakers line your fat pockets with millions based on our legal advice without seeing anything but pathetic adoration in return. We took a cue from our football and basketball brethren and decided a little work stoppage was in order. We’re transactional attorneys, dammit! If we can’t kill a good thing with overzealous unrealistic negotiating, we’re not doing our jobs! So we’ve been holding out… I’m happy to report we’re now banking 13 peanut M&M’s per blog (peanuts removed). (In reality, we were kinda just busy hanging out on the couch.)

In honor of an historic event like this (I love saying “an” before “historic”), I wanted to entitle this blog The Comeback – The Day the Screaming Stopped. But wouldn’t you know it, some jerk already took that title. Which so nicely brings us back to your question.
Continue Reading

About a year ago, I wrote my very first blog regarding copyright protection for choreography. In that post, I explained that even though dance is one of the world’s oldest art forms, the legal framework around copyright protection for choreography is still one of the least developed around. And, as our loyal readers will recall, the combination of law nerd/ex-dancer in me affectionately wished for the day that we would see a courtroom battle over choreography theft. Unfortunately for Beyoncé, the countdown may be over. (Cheesy pun intended.)

Most of you had probably never heard of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, a Belgian contemporary dance choreographer. That is, until the recent release of Beyoncé’s “Countdown” video. Almost immediately following the release of “Countdown,” Beyoncé faced allegations that she stole the choreography featured in her video from two of De Keersmaeker’s contemporary works, Rosas danst Rosas (1993) and Achterland (1990). While Beyoncé admits that De Keersmaeker’s works were “one of the inspirations used to bring the feel and look of the song to life,” her official statement — no doubt vetted by a team of lawyers — was careful not to admit that she (or, more appropriately, her team) actually copied De Keersmaeker’s choreography. Thanks to YouTube and those of you out there with way too much time on your hands, however, we can analyze De Keersmaeker’s claims for ourselves and determine whether “Countdown” crosses the line between inspiration and imitation.

First, take a look at Beyoncé’s “Countdown” video:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2XY3AvVgDns

And then take a look at De Keersmaeker’s works featured in this split-screen comparison:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDT0m514TMw

Yeah, that’s kind of hard to explain away.

Although De Keersmaeker claims that she is neither upset nor honored that Beyoncé copied her dance moves, she made a point to say that “there are protocols and consequences to such actions, and I can’t imagine [Beyoncé] and her team are not aware of it.” Is De Keersmaeker right about those consequences? That is, does Beyoncé’s “Countdown” video infringe De Keersmaeker’s copyright in her choreography? Let’s recap some of the things we have learned here at Law Law Land.
Continue Reading

Q: I have a question that I’ve been toiling over for months. I’ve done some research on it and cannot find a clear answer. I’m beginning to work with a writer on a screenplay on someone who died about 20 years ago. She has surviving brothers, but her parents are dead and she never married or had children. What type of life story rights do we need to acquire to tell this story — a screenplay that could potentially turn into a feature film? I guess the first question should be do I even need to buy or acquire the life story rights? Can I just change her name?

A: First of all, there is really no such thing as life story rights. There is the right against being defamed. There is the right against certain private facts about you being publicly disclosed without your permission — the New York Times would be violating it if its reporter sneaked in your bedroom, copied your most secret diary entries, and published them. And there are certain other rights of this nature. But there is no life story rights. When you buy life story rights, what you really “buy” is a promise from the subject of your story that they will not sue you for defamation or any number of other possible violations of their privacy rights.

In theory, you can make a movie about anyone alive without obtaining their “life story rights,” as long as the movie doesn’t defame the subject and doesn’t violate all these other privacy rights. In practice, that’s hard to do and no matter how much you try not to violate these rights, you can’t stop someone from alleging you did. So practically, in most cases, when a movie is made about someone alive, “life story rights” are acquired.

Now let’s focus on the dead. Perfect timing — Halloween is less than a month away. The dead can’t be defamed. The dead have no rights of privacy. The dead have no say about how they’re portrayed in movies. You can say anything you want about the dead, true, false, or in between. Well, not all of the dead.
Continue Reading

Q: I have a question regarding the rights needed to make a film “based on” a book, and/or “inspired by” a book. First of all, is there a legal difference between these two terms? It seems that one implies a more direct adaptation (“based on”) and the other a looser connection to a book, but is there some legal basis for determining this? Also, does one need to purchase the rights to a book that “inspires” their film? How about a book that it is “based on”?

A: In answer to your first question, while technically there is no legal significance to the specific words “based on” or “inspired by,” there is legal significance to what each term may imply.
Continue Reading

Q: A friend is self-financing and producing a micro-budget script that she wrote. She has asked me to help as an Associate Producer. It seems like a Work for Hire situation, but there’s no money for salaries. What’s the best way to formalize such an agreement?

A: As a basic rule in life, never get involved with any endeavor that can be described in a sentence that includes, in any order, the words “friend,” “self-financing,” and “micro-budget.” If the basic rule applies, run. She can’t be that good of a friend. You didn’t say she’s your best friend, just a friend. A friend in LA, at most, means you met her once and she added you to her 1,500 (and growing) other “friends” on Facebook. But even assuming she’s really a “friend” as used to be defined by a dictionary, then keep in mind that the second best way to lose a friend is to work for free on a “micro-budget” production. (In case you’re wondering, the best way is to lend money to a friend to produce a “micro-budget” script.)

But if you’re itching to test these common sense axioms, if you’re in it for a life lesson, then here is how you should formalize the deal.
Continue Reading

Q: I am optioning a German film to do an English-language remake. Anything special I need to worry about?

A: Well, apparently you need to worry about broccoli. Does your film have anything to do with broccoli? Are you going to be eating broccoli while filming? What’s the broccoli status of your film? Do you even like broccoli? Honestly, I’m not even sure I’m going to be able to answer all the concerns you may need to address if broccoli is involved.

If broccoli is not involved, you’ll still have some issues you’ll need to address. Because copyrights can be divvied up, and you’re dealing with a pre-existing movie with its entire bundle of rights, you have to worry about exactly what rights you’re getting and what rights they’re keeping.
Continue Reading

Q: How binding is a letter of intent? Nearly eight years ago, I signed a one-paragraph agreement in which I allowed a producer to attach himself to my original screenplay and shop it around. He found no takers and hasn’t submitted the script anywhere for at least five years. Now I’m thinking of reviving the project, but would prefer to do so without the producer’s involvement. Do I have any further legal or moral obligation to him? I would like to add that no money exchanged hands; the producer never actually optioned or bought my screenplay.

A: A true letter of intent is as binging as your To Do list, or at least it should be. You intend to do the things on your To Do list, but if you don’t do them you won’t get sued. The only way a letter of intent is legally binding is if it’s not truly a letter of intent. It’s not what you call something, it’s what it is. You can have a piece of paper called a letter of intent that actually contains a binding agreement or you can have something called a binding agreement that actually contains no agreement at all but just a list of non-binding things the parties intend. It seems like you have something called a letter of intent which actually contains your agreement to attach a producer to your screenplay.
Continue Reading