Mel Gibson Loses Court Bid to Reclaim Rights to 'Madman' Film

A Los Angeles judge doesn't see enough evidence that Voltage Pictures breached a contract to a motion picture about the origins of the Oxford English Dictionary.
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Mel Gibson

Mel Gibson has lost the latest round in a legal fight with Voltage Pictures over The Professor and the Madman, a film project based on Simon Winchester's best-selling book about the origins of the Oxford English Dictionary that Gibson spent a couple of decades developing. On Tuesday, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge rejected a motion for summary adjudication including the actor-producer's bid to terminate a rights agreement with Voltage.

A little more than a year ago, Gibson's Icon Productions filed suit over the film, which the lawsuit called a "labor of love" starring Sean Penn that was being jeopardized by Voltage's alleged failures to live up to an agreement. Since then, the battle has taken several turns, including director Farad Safinia's own lawsuit; Voltage's complaint alleging Gibson and Safinia were attempting to hijack control; and a judge allowing Icon's fraud claim to proceed.

Now, after examining the evidence, Judge Ruth Kwan concludes that Gibson's company hasn't proven what he needed to in order to reclaim rights.

Icon argued that Voltage had a contractual duty to execute a written director agreement with Safinia and that the defendant's failure to do so allowed the termination of the rights agreement.

Kwan responds that a provision in a deal memo pertaining to the hiring of the director was "ambiguous as to whether the agreement with Safinia had to be in writing... As argued by Plaintiff, the term 'execution' can mean signing an agreement in writing. However, the term 'execution' can also mean performing an agreement, including an oral agreement."

The judge then adds that Gibson's company has failed to submit admissible evidence suggesting no execution of an oral agreement while Voltage itself presented evidence of such.

According to the ruling, Safinia was offered $200,000 for directing services and polishing a script. His reps countered with a $275,000 demand, but Voltage remained firm, and Safinia's lawyer responded, "Hmmmmm. OK. We will chat on our end."

Thereafter, in August 2016, Safinia traveled to Dublin to begin work on principal photography. Safinia spent 42 days as the film's director, then another eight weeks in editing, and Voltage's CEO Nicolas Chartier declared an understanding of an agreement.

Disagreement among the parties erupted over a particular scene. Voltage submitted evidence that near the close of shooting, Gibson, partner Bruce Davey and Safinia demanded the production cancel a scene to be shot at the Library of Trinity College in Ireland, involving 200 extras and expensive set dressing, because the three wanted the scene shot in Oxford, England. Chartier said the decision caused the production to extend two days past schedule and incur additional costs for a film that was already overbudget by about $1.3 million. He estimates that what the three wanted would cost $2.5 million.

The relationship got worse. The director's cut was two hours and 40 minutes, submits Voltage, and while Safinia got it down to two hours, it wasn't a "strong cut."

There were discussions to shoot the missing scenes, but Chartier also hired two other directors to work on an edit, and Safinia notified he wouldn't do further work until the film's original editor was re-engaged and the plan to shoot those Oxford scenes was put into motion. Chartier adds that Safinia refused to sign the agreements that were negotiated.

In rejecting summary adjudication of Voltage's alleged duty to execute an agreement with Safinia, Kwan also notes evidence submitted by Voltage that provisions of the deal memo were for defendants' protection. 

"Chartier declared they wanted to ensure that Plaintiff could not force them to commence production of the Picture with Safinia as director if they could not reach an agreement wth Safinia," writes the judge in a tentative ruling that was adopted Tuesday at a court hearing.

The judge also denies Gibson's bid to win on an alternative claim that Voltage breached a contractual duty to obtain approval over the production budget and changes to the script. Reading the contract, Kwan notes that the contract didn't impose such duty in all circumstances including ones where Gibson was himself in breach.

Voltage is represented by attorney Jeremiah Reynolds at Eisner. Icon is handled by a team at Quinn Emanuel.