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Michael Keaton Can't Kill Lawsuit Over Directorial Debut

A judge deems it "plausible" that when the filmmaker threatened not to show up at Sundance to promote his film, producers made an agreement with him under duress.

Michael Keaton Headshot - P 2012
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Michael Keaton

An Illinois federal judge won't allow Michael Keaton to escape a lawsuit over The Merry Gentleman, his 2008 directorial debut about a professional killer who develops an unlikely relationship.

Merry Gentleman LLC, the production company, sued Keaton in April, alleging that he didn't live up to his contractual obligations. According to the complaint, among other acts, Keaton wouldn't hire an editor during the production of the film, abandoned the editing to go fly fishing and had a stand-off with producers at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival when it looked as though his cut of the film wouldn't be screened.

In a motion to dismiss, Keaton gave three grounds for dismissal, starting with a settlement agreement that was executed between him and the film's producers. As a result of this, Keaton believed that the producers had released any potential claims.

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The producers in turn argued that the agreement was invalid because it was the product of duress -- Sundance would only screen the film if Keaton showed up, and after spending $4 million on it, producers felt compelled to give into his demands.

Keaton said the producers did have a choice: They could have sued him for breaching a contract back then.

But U.S. District judge Gary Feinerman finds it "plausible" that the producers were left with no practical choice but to relent to Keaton's demands.

"The facts alleged by Merry Gentleman would allow the conclusion that a pre- Sundance suit by Merry Gentleman against Keaton, while certainly a possibility, was not a feasible alternative under the circumstances," he writes in a ruling on Wednesday. "Keaton’s threat to not appear at Sundance unless Merry Gentleman agreed to allow his second cut to show -- an agreement memorialized in the Release -- could be found opportunistic within the meaning of the duress doctrine in light of Merry Gentleman’s allegations."

Keaton's second ground for dismissal was that the producers hadn't alleged any breach of contractual duties after that Sundance release. The producers didn't like that he was lax in getting the film in shape for an audience screening and refused to work with key members of the production team. But Keaton says he had no obligation under his directing agreement to prepare a final cut.

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Judge Feinerman says Keaton "overlooks portions of the agreement that obligated him to assist in the preparation of the final cut," adding that "although Merry Gentleman had the final say over the film’s final cut, the agreement imposed obligations on Keaton regarding preparation of the final cut."

Finally, Keaton attempted to kill the breach-of-contract dispute by claiming that Merry Gentleman failed to perform its own obligations. Specifically, Keaton said he was due notice and an opportunity to make good on his agreement in the event of something not going right.

But the judge says that the notice provision pertained to the possibility of Keaton being fired or not getting paid, and since neither of those things happened, "Merry Gentleman's obligation ... to provide notice and an opportunity to cure never was triggered."

Here's the full ruling. After premiering at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, Merry Gentleman grossed less than $350,000.

The producers are being represented by Matthew David Tanner. Keaton is being represented by a team at Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott.

E-mail: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner