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Lights! Camera! Lawyers?

Studios won't shoot a movie without consulting with attorneys like A. Fredric Leopold. He is the dean of Hollywood's script vetters, who look for anything that could trigger a lawsuit.

December 10, 1997|AMY WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Few people in Hollywood have the ability to say yes. The power to green light a motion picture--to commit the resources to make it--rests with a handful of studio executives whose names are well known throughout the industry.

A. Fredric Leopold is not one of those names. But the 78-year-old lawyer's stamp of approval matters as much as any mogul's. Leopold is dean of the script vetters. He dissects would-be movies and television shows for a living, looking for vulnerabilities: libelous depictions, trademark or copyright infringement, violations of privacy.

If Leopold finds none, he will "clear" a script, an endorsement required by insurance companies before they will underwrite a project. But if the soft-spoken grandfather deems a project too risky, chances are it won't get made.

"No one in their right mind will commence principal photography on a project unless they've got approval from an insurance carrier," said Doug Mirell, a lawyer with the Los Angeles firm Loeb & Loeb. "And they're not going to get that unless they've got a clean bill of health from somebody like Fred."

Leopold and other clearance experts are the actuaries of the entertainment industry. Often working with professional researchers, these lawyers seek to calculate--and, ideally, remove--all risks of potential legal action. They know that in the best case, a lawsuit will run up sizable legal fees. At worst, it can halt a film's distribution.

Consider the case of Lebbeus Woods vs. Universal Studios, in which Woods, an artist, alleged that the 1995 movie "12 Monkeys" had copied his drawing of a wall-mounted chair with a sphere suspended in front of it.

A judge found the drawing's resemblance to one of the movie's props "striking" and, though the movie had been in release for 29 days, issued a preliminary injunction barring further distribution. (The studio hastily settled with Woods for an undisclosed sum.)

With stakes this high, movie studios and independent production companies are happy to pay clearance experts millions of dollars each year to, in Leopold's words, "be careful--with everything."

Planning to depict a living person, even in passing? Best to get the person's permission.

Planning to depict a fictional person with a fictional telephone number standing in front of a fictional store on a fictional street? A handful of Los Angeles research firms specialize in checking such names, numbers and business listings against those in the real world. If they find a match, Leopold's advice is usually simple: Change the script.

"Anybody can sue," said Kathryn Bennett, vice president of de Forest Research Associates, Los Angeles' oldest firm that does fact-checking for movies and television. "And people are very litigious."

Earlier this year, champion fight ring announcer Michael Buffer sued Sony Pictures for using one line of dialogue--"Let's get ready to rumble!"--in the movie "Booty Call." Buffer, who uses the phrase to open every prizefight, charged that the movie copied his voice, style of delivery and cadence. The suit was settled.

(A similar suit that Buffer filed against New Line Cinema in 1996 over the Jackie Chan film "Rumble in the Bronx" is still in arbitration.)

Nicknames can prompt litigation: A karate teacher sued Columbia Pictures asserting that the producers of "The Karate Kid" movie trilogy had used his moniker for commercial gain. (A New York court sided with the studio, noting that the nickname was known to only a few of the man's associates.)

Even set decorations can be actionable. A photographer sued New Line alleging copyright infringement because several of his self-portraits appeared in the background of one scene in the 1995 film "Seven." And last week, a sculptor sued Warner Bros. alleging that the 1997 film "The Devil's Advocate" displays a copy of one of his pieces, violating trademark laws and distorting the sculpture's religious meaning.

(A judge ruled against the photographer because the photos were "virtually undetectable"; the sculptor's suit, which seeks an injunction against showing the film, is pending).

Stern Taskmaster

These are the kinds of problems Leopold spends his days trying to avoid. During World War II, he dismantled live bombs for the Navy. He likes to joke that the job helped prepare him for what he does now.

Sitting at an antique English partner's desk piled high with scripts, videotapes and correspondence, Leopold patiently tinkers with potentially explosive material--a drama about the alleged Unabomber, for example, or an episode of the reality-based television show "Cops." The back of his swivel chair is so tall that when he spins to consult his 10 volumes of copyright law, he nearly disappears from view.

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