Some of the scenes are likely to run on too long, and a few of the performances may well be less than scintillating. But the story line for the long-awaited Buchwald vs. Paramount Pictures: Part III, which debuts today, promises to have plenty of audience appeal. It is being billed as a rare inside glimpse into just how money is made in Hollywood.
During this third and final phase of the trial, syndicated columnist Art Buchwald's lawyers will try to show why the humorist is entitled to between $1 million and $3 million for his contribution to the 1988 hit comedy, "Coming to America," and why producer Alain Bernheim should receive between $4.5 million and $15 million for being denied the opportunity to produce the movie. Paramount has said the film grossed $139 million.
The studio will argue that Buchwald should be paid $65,000 and Bernheim $200,000.
Expected to take the stand are four of Hollywood's most successful producers: David Brown ("Jaws," "The Sting") and Paul Maslansky (the six "Police Academy" films, "Russia House"), who will testify in behalf of Bernheim; and Paramount witnesses Martin Ransohoff ("Jagged Edge," "Catch 22") and David V. Picker ("Tom Jones," "Midnight Cowboy").
Other witnesses will include economists, agents and past and current studio executives, who are expected to offer conflicting testimony about how much ideas in Hollywood are worth and how important a producer is to the success of a movie. The trial is anticipated to take about a week.
The trial should also offer some laughs to leaven the financial data. Buchwald himself will be on hand and Paramount has hired well-known publicist John Scanlon, who can be expected to come up with a few \o7 bons mots \f7 of his own. Other Scanlon clients have included Ivana Trump during the breakup of her marriage and CBS after the network was sued for libel by Gen. William Westmoreland.
"We would advise (Buchwald) not to buy a house in the south of France," Scanlon said Friday. "This is far from over, no matter what the decision of the judge is."
Paramount has already announced it plans to appeal previous rulings in the highly publicized breach-of-contract suit, filed in November, 1988. In January, 1990, Judge Harvey A. Schneider, who is hearing the case without a jury, ruled that "Coming to America" was based on a treatment written by Buchwald called "King for a Day."
Starring Eddie Murphy, the movie chronicles the experiences of an African prince who comes to America in search of a wife and learns firsthand about the living conditions of inner-city blacks. Although Paramount bought the "King for a Day" treatment from Buchwald and Bernheim in 1983, Murphy was given credit for the story.
Schneider unleashed a storm in Hollywood in December, 1990, when he threw out Paramount's contract with Bernheim, ruling that certain provisions of it were "unconscionable"--that is, imposed on the producer without proper negotiations. In effect, the judge struck down the so-called net-profits formula, a standard part of studio movie contracts.
Under their contract with Paramount, the humorist was to receive a flat fee of $65,000 plus 1.5% of net profits when "King for a Day" was produced. Bernheim was guaranteed a producer's fee of $200,000 and 17.5% of the net profits. Paramount has contended that "Coming to America," the second highest grossing film of 1988, has yet to return net profits.
In issuing his second ruling, Schneider announced that the trial would enter a third phase. He said he needed further evidence to help him ascertain what the studio owes Bernheim, based on the "fair market value" of his services. The sum given Bernheim will influence Buchwald's sum, the judge wrote.
During this last phase, Buchwald's attorneys hope to demonstrate through testimony from Howard Suber, chairman of UCLA's film and television producers program, and Jeffrey S. Robin, senior vice president of the William Morris Agency, that the columnist's eight-page treatment was critical to the success of "Coming to America" and worth substantially more than Paramount acknowledges.
They will also try to show that " 'Coming to America' would not have existed but for Bernheim's contribution to the material and his insight that it would make an excellent vehicle for Eddie Murphy," according to court documents.
Paramount will seek to minimize the amount owed Buchwald and Bernheim by comparing producers' compensation on seven or eight other films made between 1980 and 1988 that grossed more than $75 million. The studio will also argue, according to its court papers, that "the picture's success derived little from what Buchwald brought to the studio in 1983."
Although he won the first two phases of the case, lead attorney Pierce O'Donnell said he is nevertheless nervous about Part III. Waging this legal battle has so far cost his firm $2.5 million, and it is possible the judgment will amount to substantially less than that.
"This could have a very lousy Hollywood ending," O'Donnell said.
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