Fox fires back at 'Borat' suit

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Fox attorneys filed a legal brief Monday slamming a request for a preliminary injunction against the hit comedy "Borat" as a "fatuous" attempt to thwart free speech, even as the studio's legal battle spread to a second front.

"Plaintiffs may claim that they were tricked 'into making fools out of themselves' and becoming 'unsuspecting players' in the movie 'Borat,' " the studio said in opposing the request. "They never contend ... that bigoted and misogynistic statements were put into their mouths."

The studio and three production entities are being sued by a pair of University of South Carolina students whose seemingly drunken on-camera interviews were included in Sacha Baron Cohen's outlandish mockumentary about a tour of America by a faux news reporter from Kazakhstan.

A temporary restraining order against the film's continued distribution was denied Nov. 9, when the suit was first filed. A hearing has been set for Dec. 7 in the Santa Monica branch of California Superior Court on the students' subsequent request for a preliminary injunction.

The essence of the legal argument comes down to whether consent forms signed by those interviewed will stand up against suggestions that subjects were improperly duped into cooperating with the production. The plaintiffs' attorney also has pointed to his clients' apparent inebriation as a possible issue in the case.

Several interview subjects have groused over Baron Cohen's methodology, in which prospective film participants are verbally approached with a vague description of the project and then asked to sign consent forms. Yet only the college students had sued -- until Monday, when attorneys representing a pair of villagers in Glod, Romania, filed a $30 million lawsuit over their roles in "Borat."

Filed in U.S. District Court in New York, the suit seeks to stop distribution of the film until scenes showing plaintiffs Nicolae Todorache and Spiridom Ciorebea are removed.

"I think they are contending that this was presented to them as a documentary, but this was a movie that was being shot, and it was never presented as a documentary," Fox spokesman Gregg Brilliant said of the latest filing. "The village was used as a set, and the villagers were hired as extras and actors to portray a fictional village in Kazakhstan. The entire movie is a satire, which exposes racism and intolerance."

Plaintiffs in the Santa Monica suit are only identified as John Does 1 and 2. But in Fox's latest filing, studio attorneys identify plaintiffs as Chi Psi fraternity members Justin Seay and Christopher Rotunda and suggest the latter misidentified himself to producers.

The studio's filing also addresses the suit's contention that the students were assured the film wouldn't be distributed in the U.S.

"It is also fatuous to argue as plaintiffs do that they wouldn't have vented their spleens but for their supposed belief that the movie 'would never air in the United States' but only to more than 500 million residents of Europe and Kazakhstan," the defendants state.

In addition to Fox, defendants in the suit include One America Prods., Everyman Pictures and Gold/Miller Prods.

Meanwhile, much has been made of whether British-born Baron Cohen -- who came to prominence in this country on HBO's similar mockumentary series "Da Ali G Show" -- will be able to pull off his phony-interview high jinks again in a planned picture for Universal, "Bruno," based on another one of his fictional characters. But film and legal community observers also have been wondering whether Universal will be watching for legal lessons learned in the process of Fox's defending itself from "Borat"-related litigation.

Industry consent forms are considered ironclad defenses, and sources close to the situation note that Baron Cohen has become adept at dealing with any possible legal questions via his work on "Ali G." But there also is some sense that the high-profile nature of doing business of this kind could make Universal production execs study the situation for lessons learned from "Borat."

"Until the first trial comes up, Universal won't really know what they're looking at," one exec close to the situation said. "They may need to put aside some money (for legal defenses)."

Similarly, observers suggest that Fox might decide -- however strongly it believes in the merits of its defense -- that it might ultimately prove cheaper and easier to settle out of court with some number of litigants than to contest each suit all the way through the legal system.

"Borat" has made almost $91 million domestically through its first three weekends in release and has rung up more than $63 million overseas to date.
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