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Spielberg Suing Investor Who Backed His 1st Film in 1968

October 25, 1995|JAMES BATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In one of the movie industry's more bizarre disputes, Hollywood's top filmmaker is suing a gourmet doughnut maker, alleging that he has been the victim of "financial harassment" for years, stemming from a 1968 business deal.

Steven Spielberg on Tuesday sued Denis Hoffman in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging that Hoffman is trying to force him to pay as much as $33 million that Hoffman claims he is owed under an agreement in which Hoffman helped bankroll Spielberg's first film, the 24-minute movie "Amblin."

Spielberg's move appears to be a preemptive strike. Hoffman has threatened for several months to sue Spielberg, and has hired high-powered litigator Pierce O'Donnell, along with Los Angeles lawyer Robert C. Rosen to press his case. Spielberg's lawyers say that they have rebuffed Hoffman's efforts and want to put an end to them.

The 1968 short subject film--Hoffman was the producer--won various awards. More important, it helped Spielberg catch the eye of executives at MCA Inc., launching him on what has become the most lucrative directing career in Hollywood history and enabling him to build a fortune that Forbes magazine recently estimated at $700 million.

Spielberg's lawsuit claims that Hoffman provided $10,000 for the film, although Rosen claims it was more like $25,000. As part of the agreement, Spielberg agreed to direct any movie Hoffman brought to him in the 10 years following the 1968 agreement, in exchange for $25,000 and 5% of the profits.

In his lawsuit, Spielberg claims that Hoffman never brought him any film projects, and eventually opted to let Spielberg buy his way out of the agreement for $30,000 in 1977.

Rosen counters that Spielberg, whose career in the 1970s was taking off with such movies as "Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," spurned efforts by Hoffman to get a movie made, saying he was too busy.

The strangest twist in the case involves a dispute over Spielberg's age.

Rosen says his client settled in 1977 because he and his lawyers were mistakenly led to believe that the original contract between Spielberg and Hoffman was void because Spielberg, at the time he signed the agreement, was under 21 years old, the legal age of majority until 1971.

Rosen says that Hoffman found out only last year from an interviewer for a book that Spielberg was born in 1946, rather than 1947 as has been widely reported in the press and listed in such publications as "Who's Who." That made him 21 at the time of the 1968 agreement.

Spielberg lawyer Marshall Grossman called the age issue "a bogus claim. There was never any discussion of age in connection with that 1977 agreement."

Spielberg, in the lawsuit, also claims that he has shown gratitude to Hoffman over the years, putting up $15,000 in cash and arranging for loans and equipment for Hoffman's doughnut business, Designer Donuts in Los Angeles. Spielberg owns 20% of the business.

Spielberg also claims that a film titles business Hoffman owned, Cinefx, was given work on one of Spielberg's movies.

Rosen said that the $33 million sought by Hoffman is based roughly on the earnings from two Spielberg movies from the mid-1970s, "Jaws" and "Close Encounters."

Spielberg is listed as the plaintiff, along with one of his companies, Heights Investment Co.

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