10:18am PT by Eriq Gardner
'Star Wars' Director Rian Johnson Claims the 20 Percent He's Paying Agents Is Unlawful
Star Wars: Episode VIII helmer Rian Johnson is now piloting a campaign that might be described as the talent strikes back.
In March, Johnson was dragged to court by his former agent Brian Dreyfuss, who claimed entitlement to 10 percent of all commissionable projects including Star Wars. Not only is Johnson resisting the demand, he's now returning fire by seeking to have Dreyfuss disgorge past commissions from past works.
Dreyfuss began representing Johnson in 2002 as an agent at Kohner Agency and helped raise money for Johnson's first feature-length film, Brick. Four years later, Dreyfuss formed his own firm, Featured Artists Agency, and Johnson came along as a client. Up until March 2014, the two worked together as Johnson's stature in the industry rose with projects like The Brothers Bloom, Looper and several key episodes of Breaking Bad.
In 2011, though, around the time Johnson was readying the release of Looper, he had also retained Creative Artists Agency. That meant for the subsequent three years, he was paying double commissions — 10 percent each — to both CAA and FAA. In his lawsuit, Dreyfuss says CAA's engagement was the result of interference from Johnson's producing partner Ram Bergman who allegedly wanted to "marginalize" him.
Regardless of how it happened, Dreyfuss' relationship with Johnson came to an end on March 23, 2014. "I just want to pursue other opportunities," Johnson allegedly then told Dreyfuss, who is now suspicious about the timing of his termination. According to Dreyfuss, Johnson was pursuing a World War II spy film, an adaptation of acclaimed Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, and perhaps most importantly, Star Wars. Dreyfuss says that in January 2014, he was contacted by LucasFilm to inquire about Johnson's interest in future film projects. Johnson allegedly waived it off, but Dreyfuss can't help but think that by "other opportunities," Johnson meant Star Wars. Dreyfuss demands a cut.
Post-termination commissions aren't unusual, but in this instance, Johnson has reacted by filing a petition to the California Labor Commissioner.
In the petition, Johnson says he fired Dreyfuss well before receiving an offer to write and direct Star Wars, and that Dreyfuss didn't play a role in him obtaining the gig, but what takes the dispute beyond the ordinary is allegations how his former agent has "circumvented guild rules and regulations on licensing requirements, maximum commissions and post-termination commissions."
According to Johnson, when Dreyfuss first began representing him, the Kohner Agency was licensed and franchised by the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America. The guilds have an agreements with the Association of Talent Agents whereby directors and writers pay no more than a 10 percent commission to agents.
Johnson, through his attorney Aaron Moss at Greenberg Glusker, says he's now come to learn that Dreyfuss has been operating as an unlicensed talent agent, and further, "unbeknownst to Johnson, when Dreyfuss left Kohner to start Featured, Featured deliberately failed to become franchised by the DGA, in order to attempt to avoid the obligations required of the ATA-DGA Agreement."
The petition asserts that Dreyfuss' representation of Johnson is governed by the ATA-DGA agreement anyway, and as such, Johnson can't be paying 20 percent in commissions. Johnson implies that the 10 percent to CAA on Star Wars and other projects is proper while the 10 percent to FAA would not be, though it's hardly clear why CAA's own commissions is free and clear from a claim of breach of agency agreement. In other words, why does CAA get priority? At the moment, Johnson seeks an order requiring Dreyfuss to disgorge his 10 percent commission for any project on which Johnson has paid more than the maximum. The director is also seeking a declaration that he is not obligated to pay his former agent any commissions on the WWII project, the Murakami project or any Star Wars film.
Johnson is also attempting to use the petition to pause Dreyfuss' lawsuit. Dreyfuss is opposing on procedural grounds as well as the existence of claims (e.g. the tortious interference allegation against Bergman) not subject to the jurisdiction of the Labor Commissioner.
Randy Merritt, attorney for Dreyfuss, tells THR that it's typical for talent agencies to be licensed, but not talent agents themselves. He says that Dreyfuss' Featured Artists Agency is certainly licensed.