TV Biopic of Surfing Family Threatened In Life Rights Lawsuit

The matriarch of the "first family of surfing" says Lionsgate is developing the project with Jennifer Lawrence attached to produce but without her husband's life rights.
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
'Surfwise,' the documentary on the Paskowitz family

The "first family of surfing" could feature in a TV project with Jennifer Lawrence producing, but the project first will have to contend with a lawsuit from one member of the family.

The project would center on the family of Dorian Paskowitz, who abandoned a medical career to spend his life surfing and traveling with his wife and children. (Paskowitz, who died in 2014, and his family were the subject of the documentary Surfwise in 2007.)

In the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on Wednesday, Paskowitz' widow Juliette claims Lionsgate is developing the project for television with a $20 million budget and Lawrence "engaged in a decision-making producing capacity." Lawrence is said to be attached to executive produce the project but not star. Lionsgate declined comment.

However, in the lawsuit, Paskowitz claims the producers who optioned her and her husband's story no longer hold the rights.

Paskowitz says her late husband optioned his life rights to Alan and Gabe Polsky of Polsky Films in 2010, four years preceding his death. The agreement granted the Polskys the right to purchase and develop Paskowitz's story for film or TV until June 15, 2015 (a date set after two extensions of the original agreement).

“However, the Option Agreement is vague and ambiguous as to both the correct amount of the Purchase Price for the Jennifer Lawrence Television Project ... and as to the time for payment of the Purchase Price," states the complaint.

The timing issue is of particular concern to Paskowitz. She claims the Polskys wrote her on June 15 (the option deadline) and stated they would exercise the option, then Lionsgate wrote her attorney stating the same and that "payment is on the way." However, neither Lionsgate nor the Polskys yet have paid for the option, says Paskowitz.

This is due to ambiguity in the option agreement, she says. She points out the paragraph concerning payment in the contract (which she filed with the complaint) requires payment for the option within 10 days of the commencement of principal photography for features and TV miniseries, but for TV pilots or series, doesn’t specify principal photography (or any other time) for the payment.

"Most troubling is that the Option Agreement provides in Paragraph 21 that the Defendants have no obligation, whatsoever, to ever commence principal photography of the Jennifer Lawrence Television Project and that any such commencement of production would be entirely within the Defendant's discretion. This renders any promise by the Defendants to pay the purchase price entirely illusory," states the complaint (which includes the boldface).

Paskowitz offers her interpretation of the agreement. She argues the commencement of principal photography is only relevant to the time of payment if photography commences prior to the option deadline. The suspension of principal photography until after the deadline does not delay the deadline, she says. "Custom and practice require payment of the Purchase Price no later than expiration of the Option Period, or earlier if principal photography commences prior to such time," summarizes the complaint.

With the payment unpaid, Paskowitz says the rights have reverted to the family. Lionsgate and Polsky (both defendants in the suit) nevertheless have continued to develop the project "and are in the process of engaging writers and show runners to write or revise various literary materials" for the project.

Paskowitz says this places her family into limbo where they might never receive payment from Lionsgate and Polsky, yet are unable to negotiate an extension of the license with Lionsgate or option their story to other producers.

"Plaintiff Juliette Paskowitz is an elderly widow who is unemployed and lacks substantial income," states the complaint. "The right to payment for the sale of such Paskowitz Family Life Story Rights are the single most valuable asset in the Paskowitz estate and the only asset in the Paskowitz estate sufficient to provide to Plaintiff a source of revenue to cover Plaintiff’s expenses in her later years."

Represented by Abrams Coate's Alan Abrams and Natalie Hottle, she claims breach of contract, quantum meruit (or reasonable payment when a contract is unspecific) and slander of title. She wants the court either to declare the rights hers or to force Lionsgate and Polsky to pay.

What they would pay depends on the type of project they develop. The option contract grants the Paskowitz family from $300,000 to $500,000 for the development of a feature or TV movie and $50,000 for a TV pilot. Paskowitz wants the feature or the TV pilot fee plus $300,000 in damages for the alleged slander of title.

The Hollywood Reporter has reached out to Polsky.

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