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Weinstein Co. Holds Confidential Movie Screening in $50M Legal Dispute (Exclusive)

Tony Leech and Brian Inerfeld, who are suing over the "sabotaged" release of "Escape From Planet Earth," will see the latest version of the animated film at a Weinstein-hosted private screening.

Bob Harvey Weinstein Brothers - H 2012
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Bob and Harvey Weinstein

Harvey and Bob Weinstein have hosted a number of movie screenings in their career, but perhaps none like the private screening about to be held for Escape From Planet Earth.

The animated film is about an alien prison break, originally from writer-director Tony Leech and film producer Brian Inerfeld. For several years, the movie has been in development hell, triggering a vicious lawsuit from Leech and Inerfeld on the eve of the 2011 Oscars, just as the Weinsteins were about to win best picture for The King's Speech. The $50 million lawsuit claimed that the Weinsteins were "two out-of-control movie executives ... who sabotaged what should have been a highly profitable movie through a potent combination of hubris, incompetence, profligate spending and contempt for contractual obligations."

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The Weinstein Co. hit back by saying that Leech and Inerfeld were "vindictive Hollywood talent." The Weinsteins then announced in August that the film would come out in 2013 and would be directed by Cal Brunker from a story written by "Brunker and Bob Barlen based on an original screenplay by Tony Leech and Cory Edwards."

Last week, the parties quietly revealed in court papers that they were in the midst of settlement discussions. But insiders tell The Hollywood Reporter that the chances of settlement are pretty scant. The talks are coming with an unusual stipulation: Leech, Inerfeld and their lawyers are getting a chance to see a draft version of the film at a private, confidential screening arranged by the Weinsteins. From what we hear, the Weinsteins are intent on releasing the film, and the duo are being given the opportunity to make a claim for credits.

The development marks the latest in a flurry of nasty moves and countermoves over Escape From Planet Earth.

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To review: Leech and Inerfeld were behind the 2005 Weinstein hit Hoodwinked. Following that success, they signed a deal for Escape From Planet Earth. According to the original complaint, the duo were to receive at least 20 percent of Escape's adjusted gross profit, which they estimated would be worth close to $50 million in backend participation alone.

But Leech claims that the Weinsteins repeatedly rejected script and forced him to rewrite it no fewer than 17 times. The Weinstein Co. also allegedly interfered with his choice of casting Kevin Bacon, paying the actor to walk away. And as the budget purportedly ballooned with 200-plus animators on payroll, the Weinsteins supposedly mortgaged its copyright on Escape to obtain fresh capital. Leech and Inerfeld say they were told they would have to give up gross participation to get their film released.

But what really set things off was the plaintiffs' claim that on the eve of the Oscars, they were offered $500,000 in "hush money" to keep the dispute quiet so it wouldn't impact the awards race. They sued anyway and called the Weinsteins "a real life version of Bialystock & Bloom."

In reaction, the Weinsteins first tried to get the case transferred to California and also attempted to sanction the plaintiffs for breaching a confidentiality agreement and attempting to disqualify famed attorney David Boies from representing the company. The judge kept the case in New York and rejected the requested sanctions.

Since then, the case has been proceeding along as the parties go through discovery and fight over issues including whether the financing vehicle of JTM Escape Co. has a security interest on the film that is superior to the plaintiffs' contractual rights.

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Now, Weinstein Co. is getting ready to release its version of Escape From Planet Earth, which could set up some intrigue about authorship. The movie is under the stewardship of Brunker, who worked on Despicable Me and Horton Hears a Who! The voice cast includes Brendan Fraser, Jessica Alba and Sarah Jessica Parker.

Is this Leach's film? A source tells us that Weinsteins think that what Leach turned in was not in workable shape for a film. Only those who have seen it know for sure how much it resembles whatever Leach and Inerfeld produced. But they'll be seeing the movie soon at a special Weinstein-hosted screening.

Lawyers on both sides declined comment for confidentiality reasons.

E-mail: eriq.gardner@thr.com

Twitter: @eriqgardner