Hollywood Loves an Original Idea

But 'Amistad' and other plagiarism lawsuits show it can be hard to find one.

A scene from the 1942 classic "Casablanca" is being used to make a point here this week.

Setup: Corrupt Capt. Louie Renault orders the closing of Rick's Cafe Americain. "On what grounds, Louie?" demands a disgruntled Humphrey Bogart.

Punch line: "I'm shocked, shocked, to find out there's gambling going on in here!" says Renault, just before he is discreetly handed his own winnings.

In the same way, say Hollywood insiders, any movie lover who is "shocked" at the clash over copyright behind this weekend's release of Steven Spielberg's "Amistad" is either playing a disingenuous Louie Renault or doesn't know the first thing about Hollywood.

"Two or more people in this town coming up with the same or similar ideas simultaneously happens all the time," says Harold Ramis, who has written or directed "Animal House," "Ghostbusters," and "Groundhog Day," to name a few. "You've got 25,000 people scouring the same history books, same mythologies, same novels, books, and newspapers looking for that unique story," he says.

The $75 million "Amistad" premired to long lines and positive reviews, after a judge declined to stop the opening on grounds that Mr. Spielberg's source material might have come from someone else's book.

A trial set for early next year will search for clues to which party is right and why, and in the end may refine the definitions of intellectual property or plagiarism. In the meantime, the dispute is throwing a spotlight on the Byzantine, behind-the-scenes workings of America's dream factory.

Not since writer Art Buchwald took Eddie Murphy and Paramount Pictures to court nearly 10 years ago over who wrote "Coming to America" have outsiders wondered so much about how Hollywood decides who wrote what, who gets the credit, and who gets paid.

"Almost every [Hollywood movie] project has a certain amount of litigation," says Arthur Rockwell, entertainment analyst for a Los Angeles brokerage firm. "When you consider the amount of money in these movies, the number of people involved, and the litigiousness of American society, it is understandable."

Mr. Ramis might easily concur. After filming 1995's "Groundhog Day," a feature in which a man lives the same day again and again, Ramis was sued by writers of another film in which a man lives the same hour again and again.

During the making of "Animal House" - a fraternity picture set in the late 1960s - two writers tried to claim that Ramis's material was stolen from a college screenplay they had written years before. "Multiplicity," released last year, went into production even as a rival studio was considering a different screenplay about cloning.

"A lot of stories are just in the wind, and people are trying to be the first and best to do it," says Ramis. Now at work on a movie about a Mafia leader who has a nervous breakdown and visits a suburban psychiatrist, Ramis just learned about a TV movie in the works entitled "The Don's Analyst."

The 'vetting' industry

So omnipresent is the danger of legal charges of plagiarizing and copyright infringement that an entire industry known as "script vetting" exists to check every script for possible infractions. "We look for anything that can get a studio in hot water, from stealing sentences to paragraphs to whole ideas," says A. Fredric Leopold, who studies 100 to 200 scripts a year and is the acknowledged dean of Hollywood script vetters.

For $250 per hour, Mr. Leopold reads a script and searches video and film rolls for possible slip-ups. He alerts producers about questionable parts; it's their job to make sure the material is original. Part of what makes the task so hard is that 30,000 to 40,000 ideas, plot treatments, and full scripts are registered each year with the Writers Guild of America - but no one knows until court time who registered a given idea first.

Partly because of this, another Hollywood industry insures filmmakers and distributors against the possibility of being sued for plagiarism.

"No producer wants to buy our insurance, but they find out they can't get [their movies] released without it," says Truman Van Dyke, owner of an entertainment insurance brokerage that has insured movies here for 25 years. For 2 percent of a movie's production budget, his firm underwrites possible losses.

Infractions small and large

Because of the vetters and insurance, most disputes never make it to court. Mr. Van Dyke says of about 200 films he insures each year, 5 percent run into problems but are settled out of court. Some of the actionable infractions, say Van Dyke and Leopold, might be considered petty by Hollywood outsiders.

Boxing's ring announcer Michael Buffer sued Sony Pictures earlier this year for using the words, "Let's get ready to rumble!" in the movie "Booty Call." He claimed the movie copied his phrase, voice, and cadence, and he settled successfully out of court.

In 1995's "Twelve Monkeys," artist Lebbeus Woods sued Universal Studios, claiming producers copied a drawing of a wall-mounted chair. The judge agreed and issued a temporary injunction barring further distribution of the film, which had been out for 29 days. And a fortnight ago, Warner Brothers Films was sued by a sculptor who alleges that "The Devil's Advocate" displays a copy of one of his pieces.

Although the number of smaller litigations is on the rise, say observers, it remains unusual for a large case to reach court. The "Amistad" case has done so, they say, because both parties are out to make a point of principle.

Barbara Chase-Riboud, who had submitted her 1989 novel, "Echo of Lions," to another production company in 1993, says the screenwriter copied themes, dialogue, characters, relationships, plots, and scenes from her book for the "Amistad" screenplay. She says her suit is "not only for myself but all writers." Spielberg, observers say, has his company's credibility on the line and cannot be seen as either being a plagiarist or kowtowing to a gadfly lawsuit.

Copyright specialists say the court will try to determine how much of "Amistad" came from history and how much came directly from Ms. Chase-Riboud's work. Although history is open to all screenwriters, specific characterizations and plot lines are not. Chase-Riboud claims 88 specific "similarities."

"The 'Amistad' case is either one of sheer hubris or just plain sloppiness [by Spielberg]," says a screenwriter who asked not to be named. Chase-Riboud's script could be bought for an amount far less than whatever the liability cost might be from a lawsuit, he says. "This underlines the treacherous nature of story development in litigious times."

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