Ron Howard's 'The Good Lie' at Center of Exploitation Lawsuit by Sudanese Refugees

In Atlanta, Georgia, thousands of miles away from a war-ravaged homeland, there exists a community of Sudanese refugees. Many of these individuals have been dubbed the "Lost Boys of Sudan" by aid workers who have likened them to the wandering youth in Peter Pan. Many of the refugees survived starvation, disease and militia attacks in Darfur, and when civil war broke out in Ethiopia around a refugee camp, they came to America.

What happened before they made their way to the Land of Opportunity is said to have been featured in the 2014 feature film The Good Lie, starring Reese Witherspoon and produced by notables like Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. What happened after they settled in Atlanta is now the subject of a potentially groundbreaking 101-page lawsuit filed on Thursday by 54 Sudanese refugees against producers of the film including Imagine Entertainment, Alcon Entertainment, Black Label Media and Reliance Big Entertainment.

"The refugees partnered with Defendants to create The Good Lie’s script, in part, based upon their promise that a non-profit foundation organized and run by the refugees would be the sole beneficiary of any fundraising efforts associated with The Good Lie," states the lawsuit. "However, neither the refugees nor their Foundation have been compensated in any fashion for sharing their traumatic personal stories and assisting with the creation of the script for The Good Lie."

Read more 'The Good Lie': Toronto Review

This is no ordinary tale of alleged Hollywood exploitation. Together with the Foundation for Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan, the 54 Sudanese refugees are making a bold claim of joint authorship that could recast the way that scriptwriters do research on projects. They are also coming to a federal court with allegations that producers set up a joint venture to their benefit. And they apparently have videotape of some of their discussions with producers in advance of the October 2014 release of The Good Lie.

According to the complaint, the story of what happened to these refugees in America dates back to 2002, when six of them were hired to work on the movie Tears of the Sun, starring Bruce Willis. After filming, Gam Day Awino, Gabriel Gai Magok and Nathaniel Chol Nyok traveled to Los Angeles and met with Bobby Newmyer, a film producer at Outlaw Productions.

The three say they shared their life stories, and Newmyer allegedly responded, "We can make this into a movie."

Newmyer tapped Margaret Nagle, whose work for Boardwalk Empire was nominated for an Emmy, to write a script, and Newmyer and Nagle together traveled to Atlanta.

"While some common elements of the Lost Boys’ story were publicly available, Newmyer and Nagle wanted to create a movie with real, personal and emotional details otherwise unavailable to the public at large," says the lawsuit. "Newmyer and Nagle needed the details from the Lost Boys’ personal stories and permission to use those details in a screenplay and subsequent film."

In Atlanta, discussions arose about compensation, and according to the complaint, some of the Sudanese refugees said they wouldn't cooperate without reaching an agreement. Newmyer and Nagle allegedly came up with an offer to pay them $55,000 immediately, to have their stories used as a catalyst to raise funds for a new foundation, and to "not allow the script to be used for a film unless and until the Contributing Lost Boys consented after reaching an agreement as to compensation with the future filmmakers/studios."

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At that point, more than a decade ago, The Good Lie was still in its formative stages. The refugees gave interviews, but no script was ready and no studio was involved. But the plaintiffs say they nevertheless reached the terms of a joint venture. The supposed contract appears to have been an oral one.

Eventually, a script was written, and it's described as incorporating substantial elements from those interviews. The title of The Good Lie, for instance, is said to refer to a lie once told by Awino's friends to would-be-captors that saved his life.

In 2013, eight years after Newmyer died of a heart attack, Outlaw Productions sold rights to Nagle's script to Paramount Pictures, according to the complaint. Rights were then resold to Reliance and Imagine, with Black Label Media coming on board to produce as well. The suing Sudanese natives say they never gave consent.

Filming began in Atlanta in early 2013, and the plaintiffs say they learned about the movie through other Sudanese refugees hired as extras. "The Contributing Lost Boys were shocked that their story was being produced because they trusted Nagle to keep her promise and comply with the terms of the Joint Venture Agreement," says the lawsuit.

This led to a meeting on April 15, 2013, between representatives of the refugees on one side and Molly Smith of Black Label Media and Karen Sherwood of Imagine Entertainment on the other. The plaintiffs say they have a videotape of what occurred.

Sherwood and Smith both mentioned a scholarship donation, says the lawsuit. Smith reportedly also stated, "The most important thing that was said here today was you asked a question, 'Do you feel we should be compensated for your story?' And, the answer I can say, because it’s my company and my studio, is absolutely.”

A few weeks after the meeting, Smith allegedly called one of the members of the Foundation for Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan with a $1 million offer.

Soon, the Foundation involved a lawyer, who attempted to negotiate.

The producers had their own attorneys respond, "Our clients have never agreed to pay any law firm, Lost Boy, or organization for Black Label Media’s own copyrighted work.”

The Good Lie came out, the so-called "contributing lost boys" recognized their stories on screen, and now comes the lawsuit against the producers with more than two dozen pages detailing exactly what the refugees say they told the screenwriter in interviews.

The lawsuit asserts many claims — including breach of the joint venture agreement, breach of fiduciary duty, conversion of plaintiffs' ideas, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, unjust enrichment, promissory estoppel, etc. — but what makes this lawsuit noteworthy even beyond the allegations of the Hollywood exploitation of Sudanese refugees is an ambitious attempt at a declaratory judgment over authorship.

Represented by attorney Jason Graham, the plaintiffs say "the express purpose of the interviews was to provide Nagle with background, stories, facts, and material for the Screenplay," and while it's not uncommon for script writers to conduct this sort of research, the lawsuit makes the case why The Good Lie couldn't use these interviews without permission.

The interviews are said to possess the "modicum of creativity" necessary for being copyrighted. Further, because the interviews were taped, they are said to be "fixed in any tangible medium of expression." Finally, because of the conditions put on the interviews, and the claim that the contributions made by the refugees are  "inseparable rather than interdependent," Nagel's interviews are argued to be a "joint work."

The theory seems adventurous and probably problematic to screenwriters (not to mention journalists), but assume for a moment that's true.

Next, the lawsuit states that "joint authors do not have an unfettered license to use original material provided by other joint authors without consent."

Actually, co-authors are usually assumed to have the ability to make nonexclusive licenses as long as they account to one another. Then again, considering that Cindy Lee Garcia, an actress in Innocence of Muslims, has thus far prevailed in asserting a copyright interest in her performance in the film, maybe all bets are off? Especially given that the Sudanese plaintiffs are also bringing a sympathetic story to a courtroom?

Imagine Entertainment wouldn't comment about the lawsuit while Alcon Entertainment hasn't yet responded to a request.

This lawsuit, if it doesn't settle, will likely be a closely watched one with implications.

"These issues don't usually come up because usually things are written down," says Mark Jaffe at Tor Ekeland. "Garcia should have been the lesson. I know that independent filmmakers struggle with the paperwork, but these are sophisticated filmmakers."

Update: Black Label Media gave us this statement:

"We are very proud of our film, The Good Lie, which was inspired by the stories of thousands of Lost Boys and Girls living here in America.  We are equally proud of the great charitable endeavors of the Good Lie Fund, which was created by the filmmakers to support organizations of Lost Boys and Girls both here in America and in Africa.  To date the fund has distributed in excess of $500,000 for the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, as well as for many of the accredited 501c3 charitable organizations who support Lost Boys and Girls here in America.  We have been fortunate to have the support of countless Lost Boys and Girls throughout the United States who have supported this Film and the Good Lie Fund.  Regrettably, the Plaintiffs and their attorneys have made claims that are not supported by the facts or the law.  These claims have no merit and will be addressed in due course by the Court. "

Twitter: @eriqgardner