MGM, Paramount Say 'Ben Hur' Musicians Not Covered by Union Agreement

The studios make their move to dismiss a lawsuit from a guild that claims that musicians haven't been properly compensated.
Paramount Pictures

MGM and Paramount Pictures are moving to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a guild that claims musicians who recorded the score for the 2016 film remake of Ben Hur have been denied rightful wages, benefits and residual compensation. In a motion filed Wednesday, the studios argue that these musicians are not covered under a collective bargaining agreement.

The lawsuit comes from The American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada, who assert that the studios are violating Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act. In the complaint, the guild noted that Ben Hur was shot in Italy, but that producers retained the services of a California composer, Marco Beltrami.

Each of the major studios is a signatory to a union-negotiated 2015 agreement over motion pictures.

But MGM and Paramount are relying on the allegation that Beltrami was hired by Paramount's "contractor," BH Productions LLC. According to the defendants, this puts the musicians — who they say were fully compensated — outside the relevant bargaining unit. What's more, the defendants question whether the musicians have ever consented to this lawsuit.

"Because the AFM lacks standing under Section 301 to pursue claims on behalf of the musicians allegedly hired by the composer, the AFM cannot seek damages on their behalf," states the motion. "The AFM has not alleged, and cannot allege, that the musicians ever authorized the AFM to seek financial recovery for purported injuries caused to them. Indeed, the AFM has not even alleged that the musicians are aware that the AFM is seeking to represent their interests in this action."

Paramount previously used similar arguments to beat an AFM lawsuit over the score to Same Kind of Different as Me. That legal action challenged how the film wasn't scored in North America in alleged breach of the CBA. Crucially, the case failed after a judge determined that the musicians weren't employed by Paramount, but rather by the production vehicle, SKODAM Films.

In some ways, Paramount is being even more bold in its defense of Ben Hur.

The adjudication of Same Kind of Different as Me happened at the summary judgment phase after the parties engaged in discovery and explored evidence of Paramount's control over the picture and whether it could be deemed a joint employer.

In contrast, MGM and Paramount are now looking to kill the Ben Hur lawsuit on a motion for judgment on the pleadings. What that means is that the studios don't want any costly discovery. Represented by attorney Adam Levin at Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp, they are challenging whether AFM has even alleged a plausible case.

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