Paramount Pictures Disputes Being a "Producer" of Renee Zellweger Film In Battle With Labor Guild

A lawsuit over a film score produced overseas has suddenly become an important labor case in Hollywood.
AP Images/Invision

When is a Paramount Pictures film not really a Paramount Pictures production?

The question might seem illogical on its face, but it's now one of supreme importance in an ongoing dispute over the unreleased film Same Kind of Different as Me, starring Renee Zellweger, based on the 2006 book co-authored by Ron Hall and Denver Moore of their friendship.

In June 2015, The American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada sued the studio over the score to the film. The labor guild claims that Paramount breached the terms of a collective bargaining agreement that requires that films produced in North America shall be scored there.

On Monday, Paramount filed new court papers and postulated a position that may have ramifications in other labor contexts.

According to its summary judgment motion, "AFM's entire case rests on the fiction that Paramount 'produced' Same Kind of Different as Me, when, in fact, it did not. Instead, the Motion Picture was made by a wholly unrelated company called SKODAM Films, LLC which is owned by Ron Hall, co-author of a novel entitled 'Same Kind of Different as Me.' Paramount has no ownership interest in SKODAM Films whatsoever. SKODAM Films alone owns the rights to Hall's novel, developed a script based on it, and was responsible for shooting the Motion Picture, including hiring and supervising the cast and crew, determining the production schedule and locations, and overseeing all aspects of production, or principal photography."

"Single-purpose" corporations are quite common in Hollywood, and this is hardly the first time that a studio has attempted to use one to create space from liability. For example, when Fox Searchlight was hit with a lawsuit challenging unpaid internships on the film Black Swan, it pointed to Lake of Tiers Inc. as the real production entity doing the hiring. 

In its court papers, Paramount talks more about the development of the film and the relationship it has with SKODAM Films.

Hall originally optioned his book to Disney, but by 2013, the agreement terminated, and Hall along with co-screenwriters Alex Foard and Michael Carney (who would direct the film) "began raising money to make the motion picture independently, without studio involvement," according to deposition testimony. Another producer, Darren Moorman, was brought in, and the project was shopped "all over town," he says. The following year, Mary Parent and Cale Boyter at Disruption Entertainment became involved. Some $6.5 million had already been raised. Actor Djimon Honsou became attached to the project. Meetings happened at Pureflix, a distributor of faith-based films, and Sony.

Paramount brings up all that happened before it got on board because it clearly serves its argument.

Hall set up SKODAM Films in the spring of 2014, according to Paramount, and the new company ran low on money after commencing work so it "approached distributors about investing." SKODAM ultimately entered into a distribution and co-financing agreement with Paramount, which put up 40 percent of the budget and obtained a "fractional ownership of the copyright."

SKODAM is said to have performed tasks like renting props, building sets and negotiating and entering into agreements with labor unions including the Directors Guild of America, SAG-AFTRA and the Teamsters. SKODAM selected John Paesano to score the film, adds Paramount. He was the one to decide to do it in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Paramount, framing itself as the distributor, says the language of the AFM collective bargaining agreement is clear and unambiguous.

"Most importantly, the verb 'produced,' while not defined in the CBA, is commonly understood, including by current and past AFM representatives, to mean the 'making' or 'shooting' of principal photography on a motion picture," states Paramount's legal brief (read here in full) authored by attorney Adam Levin at Mitchell Silberberg.

Jeffrey Freund, AFM's general counsel, wasn't immediately unavailable to respond, but the arguments from both sides were foreshadowed in recent weeks as both parties came to a side argument over documents needing to be produced at the discovery stage. 

One of arguments that AFM is making is that Paramount would only finance the film on the condition that filmmakers engage Disruption, and that during production of the film, a services agreement gave Paramount the exclusive right to utilize Disruption’s production services. AFM points out that Paramount was obligated to pay Disruption's overhead expenses, producing fees, and that unlike The Revenant, says there's no evidence that Paramount allowed Disruption to produce Same Kind of Different as Me outside of the agreement. Parent is described as using a paramount.com email address too and Disruption's offices are on Paramount's studio lot.

"To be sure, AFM’s claim that Paramount was a producer of SKODAM does not hinge solely on Disruption’s role in producing the movie," wrote AFM in a February brief. "AFM has developed substantial additional evidence regarding Paramount’s financial, operational, and creative relationship to the motion picture."

That should be coming soon.

In the meantime, Paramount attempts to anticipate the counter-argument that Paramount is a co-producer of the film.

"It is common in the motion picture industry for distributors and financers to have approval rights over, and limited involvement in, certain aspects of the production," acknowledges Paramount, which goes on to articulate the qualitative and quantitative differences between a producer and distributor. "For example, whereas SKODAM Films spent at least 50-100 hours casting the Motion Picture, Paramount spent approximately a mere 5 hours in connection with these same functions. Whereas just one producer alone from SKODAM Films spent hundreds of hours working on every aspect of shooting principal photography on the Motion Picture ... no Paramount representative spent any time on set (except for one marketing type event)."

Is there a bright line where Paramount crosses over from distributor to producer?

That's not clear, but the studio does say there are other films — like World War Z, which had Paramount co-president of production Geoff Stier in the editing room, according to testimony in this case — that evince more creative control on Paramount's part.

And Paramount says that its ownership stake doesn't matter either, that "produced" is commonly understood as "shot" or "made," nothing more.

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