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Buchwald Suit Takes a Look Inside Hollywood

December 16, 1989|DENNIS McDOUGAL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's hardly news in the looking-glass world of Hollywood that movie executives must sometimes traffic in "embellished" truths and that blockbuster films can gross hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office and still earn no net profits.

Such niceties of the business, however, are rarely kicked around in public forums.

And so it was on Friday that Department 52 of Los Angeles Superior Court provided a rare opportunity to learn about the promotion and accounting practices of movie making. The moment at hand was the first day of testimony in a $5-million lawsuit that pits humorist Art Buchwald against Paramount Pictures Corp. The columnist claims that Paramount stole his idea for the Eddie Murphy film "Coming to America."

In his opening statement before Judge Harvey Schneider, Buchwald attorney Pierce O'Donnell said the trial to come could be entitled, "Anatomy of a Movie." More to the point, he claimed that an eight-page treatment Buchwald wrote in 1983, called "King for a Day," and the "Coming to America" story Murphy was credited with writing were "as close as any fraternal twins born of the same parents."

O'Donnell told the judge that evidence will be introduced to show the movie has already grossed between $300 million and $400 million, $22 million of which has been paid to Murphy. Paramount has earned more than $50 million from the film, O'Donnell alleged.

The issue goes to how much Buchwald and a co-plaintiff should receive if they prevail in the breach-of-contract suit. The plaintiffs had a development contract with Paramount that entitled them to 19% of the net profits of any film made from their treatment, and they are attempting to prove that the movie made enormous profits--despite what the books might say.

"Coming to America" remains "not profitable and will never be profitable" by Hollywood standards, O'Donnell asserted, because most of the money it earns goes to those who share in gross profits before any net profit is recorded. He said Paramount executives had indicated to him that the movie, which was the third-highest-grossing film released last year, has yet to earn a net profit.

In a sworn deposition, O'Donnell said, Murphy himself referred to net profits as "monkey points," because anyone who accepted net profits from a movie as payment would have to be "crazy."

"That's the way the movie business works," Paramount attorney Bob Draper said later in his opening statement.

He explained that the stars, directors and others who actually make the movies share in gross profit points. John Landis, who directed Murphy in both "Coming to America" and "Trading Places," earns 10% of "pure gross profits" when he makes a film, Draper said.

The heart of the matter is Buchwald's claim that he and Alain Bernheim, who has produced, among other films, "Shoot the Moon" and "Buddy, Buddy," came up with the idea for "Coming to America." In the film, Murphy plays an African prince who has come to the United States to find a suitable bride; he encounters a series of comedic adventures, falls in love and returns to his native land.

Paramount introduced into evidence Friday a treatment for a movie entitled, "King of New York," written in the 1950s by the late Charlie Chaplin. In it, a mythical king comes to New York seeking arms from the U.S. government. While in the United States, he encounters "a series of comedic adventures," falls in love and eventually returns to his native land.

Draper, the studio's lawyer, said Buchwald was familiar with the Chaplin treatment and he might have taken his story concept, which originally was entitled, "King for a Day," from "King of New York."

All three treatments--"King for a Day," "King of New York," and "Coming to America"--were on display Friday on large poster boards before the judge.

Paramount bought the Buchwald-Bernheim treatment in 1983 for $65,000 and, according to court records, spent about $500,000 developing it as a possible vehicle for Murphy. But it says "Coming to America" is a wholly different story.

The first witness Friday was Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, who headed Paramount's motion picture production unit in 1983. The 38-year-old Katzenberg affirmed that Paramount optioned Buchwald's treatment and that two screenwriters--Tab Murphy (no relation to Eddie Murphy) and Francis Veber--were paid to develop scripts from the Buchwald treatment.

But Katzenberg said that he could not specifically recall a series of documents, introduced as evidence, which bear his signature. The documents include 1983 letters to director Landis and to then-NBC Entertainment chief Brandon Tartikoff. In them, Katzenberg indicated that "King for a Day" was being developed for Eddie Murphy. In the letter to Landis, Katzenberg wrote that Murphy "is familiar with the idea and likes it very much."

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