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2 Producers of 'Batman' Sue Warner : Entertainment: They challenge the contention that the film lost money. The studio says it observed the contract.

March 27, 1992|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two executive producers of "Batman" on Thursday sued Warner Bros. and the producing team of Peter Guber and Jon Peters, contending that they were cheated out of millions of dollars when the fifth-highest grossing film of all time showed a supposed net loss of $20 million.

In two companion suits filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, Benjamin Melniker and Michael Uslan seek $8 million in damages. Their attorneys contend that the case could shed further light on the accounting practices employed by major Hollywood studios.

A Warner spokesman said the suits stem from a dispute between "Batman's" many producers.

The suits follow on the heels of the celebrated case in which humor columnist Art Buchwald and his producing partner recently won $900,000 from Paramount Pictures in a breach of contract suit over the Eddie Murphy film, "Coming to America."

In the Buchwald case, a Superior Court judge struck down Paramount's formula for determining film profits, calling portions of the studio's basic contract "unconscionable." Paramount had maintained that the movie was unlikely ever to return net profits, even though "Coming to America" has grossed $145 million so far.

Attorney Pierce O'Donnell, who represented Buchwald and now is representing Melniker and Uslan in their suit against Warner Bros., said the new cases are a "logical extension" of the Buchwald suit because they raise similar issues about another studio's net-profits formula.

Attorney Thomas V. Girardi, representing the two in a separate suit against Guber-Peters Entertainment Co., said the studios would have people believe that no film has ever made a net profit. "I really don't know how they stay in business," Girardi cracked. Warner Bros. issued a statement saying that "the monies were paid strictly in accordance with the signed contracts between the various parties."

The suits contend that "despite at least $200 million of profits from 'Batman,' the movie's two creators and executive producers . . . have received not one cent of the movie's stupendous profits."

The lawsuits allege that, based on Warner's accounting formula, " 'Batman' will never earn net profits for the two men who conceived the movie, acquired the rights and provided the creative blueprint for the film."

Melniker and Uslan maintain that they were the creative forces behind the dark, comic-book-style tale that starred Michael Keaton in the title role and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, the arch-villain of Gotham City.

However, the suits allege that Guber, who subsequently became chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and producer Peters made as much as $20 million in profits from the film and enjoyed the public perception that they were responsible for the vision of "Batman."

Hollywood was startled a year ago when financial statements surfaced supposedly showing that the blockbuster 1989 film, which by then had grossed $253 million, was wallowing in red ink.

The suits filed Thursday allege that Warner Bros. banked over $100 million in profits while Nicholson was paid over $50 million and given a financial interest in the sequel, "Batman Returns," even though he isn't in that film.

According to the suits, Uslan--a comic book fan--wrote a memorandum in which he said that Batman should return to his 1939 roots and be portrayed as a "vigilante who stalks criminals in the shadow of the night." Uslan even suggested casting Nicholson as the Joker. Melniker is a former MGM executive.

Seeking financial backing, Uslan and Melniker took their idea in 1979 to Guber, entering into a joint venture agreement with Guber's Casablanca Productions Ltd.

But in 1980, Peters joined Guber at PolyGram Pictures. The two entered into a separate agreement with Warner Bros. to finance and distribute a Batman film. Melniker and Uslan did not learn that a film was going into production until 1988.

Melniker and Uslan contend that Warner Bros. coerced them into signing an agreement that stripped them of their consulting rights but gave them 13% of net profits.

The two were paid $400,000 under the Casablanca agreement.

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