Ava DuVernay's Company Sued in Dispute Over Documentary's Awards Run

A documentarian says the company didn’t submit his film for awards as agreed — and now won't stop claiming rights.
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Ava DuVernay

In a lawsuit filed Thursday, the producers of the documentary 25 To Life, which follows a man who hid his HIV diagnosis for decades, says the documentary could've been a contender in the 2014 awards season if not for Ava DuVernay’s company Array.

The producers of Michael Brown's film say they courted several distributors following 25 To Life’s premiere in 2014 at the American Black Film Festival, where it won the award for best documentary. One was Array, which then was called AFFRM.

The company, via DuVernay and managing director Tilane Jones, agreed to submit the film to the nominating committees for the NAACP Image Awards and the Independent Spirit Awards, states the lawsuit, filed on behalf of the production entity 25 To Life Films. (Neither DuVernay nor Jones are defendants.)

When 25 To Life wasn’t nominated for an NAACP Image Award in December 2014, the producers say they reached out to Array asking why. When they allegedly didn’t receive a response, they say they followed up with the NAACP and found out the film never was submitted. The NAACP “further stated that the NAACP Image Awards had, in fact, reached out to AAFFRM and requested that it submit the Documentary for consideration, but that they never received a response,” states the complaint.

During a subsequent conversation, the producers say Jones admitted not submitting the film for nomination to neither the NAACP nor the Independent Spirit Awards.

Why not? The filmmakers have a theory.

“25TL is informed and believes that AAFFRM breached its obligation to submit the Documentary to the Independent Spirit Awards and NAACP Image awards because AAFFRM and DuVernay were focused solely on DuVernay and her own film, Selma, which was submitted to the nominating committees by the required deadlines,” states the lawsuit.

(Selma took home awards for best film, best actor and supporting actor and others at the NAACP Image Awards, and the film and DuVernay garnerered nominations for Independent Spirit Awards.)

The producers say Jones explained 25 To Life wasn’t submitted because the filmmakers and Array had not formalized a long-form distribution agreement by the submission deadlines. They contend the term sheet he signed when he first dealt with Array in August 2014 nevertheless bound the company to submit the documentary for consideration.

Sranger still, they say they terminated 25 To Life’s agreement with Array in January, but the company refuses to let go of the film. It continues to claim rights to the film (see Array’s website), say the plaintiffs, and signed a worldwide VOD deal with Netflix from which they received no revenue.

“AAFFRM’s refusal to recognize 25TL’s termination of the parties’ license agreement, combined with its failure and refusal to consult with 25TL in the marketing and promotion of the Documentary, has effectively ‘hijacked’ the Documentary,” states the complaint.

Represented by Robert Darwell of Sheppard Mullin, the filmmakers want the court to declare the agreement with Array terminated and enjoin Array from distributing the documentary.

Says DuVernay in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, "I heard about this filing from THR, and needless to say, it's disappointing. This film touched on the important matter of HIV and AIDS awareness in the black community. Our grassroots collective felt it deserved to be seen, so we put our hearts into the amplification of the film last year around World Aids Day. And now this. I can just say, the claim is meritless and sad. Our attorney will respond accordingly."

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