'Titanic' Bit Actor's Lawsuit Over Back Pay Survives in Lighter Form

'Titanic' (1997)

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from this beloved disaster film, which nabbed 11 Oscars and became the first movie to hit the billion-dollar mark at the box office. The first lesson is that you can never have enough life boats. And perhaps the second, although equally important, lesson involves not leaving nude sketches of yourself around all willy-nilly, especially when your fiance clearly has anger issues.

The actor who says he was bumped up from an extra to a principal performer on James Cameron's Titanic is traveling a little lighter in his lawsuit over whether he is entitled to back pay from the 1997 blockbuster.

Vijay, professionally known as Abrax Lorini, sued 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures and Lightstorm Entertainment this past February, and since then, the case has been bouncing back and forth between state and federal court. On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Lew finally began to address the merits of his claims in ruling on a motion to dismiss.

The plaintiff says that two decades ago, he went to a casting call and was hired for $60 to be an extra. Then, Cameron cast him as "Spindly Porter," which meant spending an additional 90 days on set for among other things, that scene where Vijay carries luggage and recites some dialogue.

Vijay wasn't a member of the Screen Actors Guild at the time, though he's arguably still under union jurisdiction anyway. Apparently, when the actor's role was bumped up, he wasn't asked to sign a work-for-hire agreement, an industry norm.

Among Vijay's claims was that Titanic and a companion film entitled Ghosts of the Abyss violated his likeness rights, but the judge isn't impressed, writing that his "appearance is but a minuscule portion of each of these films, heavily edited and synthesized with significant artistic expression... His scenes appeared for seconds at most in nearly five hours of film, and even his filmed scenes were transformed with special effects and music in the final product."

As such, his appearance in the film doesn't rise to meet the publicity rights test of being "the very sum and substance" of the work. The judge dismisses the claim.

The studios also attempted to block the plaintiff's remaining claims of being entitled to royalties as being preempted under Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act. They argued also that the claims are subject to the binding arbitration clause of the SAG collective bargaining agreement.

Judge Lew finds it premature to rule on this aspect of the case, though it appears as though a motion for arbitration or summary judgment could come soon.

If Vijay manages to navigate past any defenses like statute of limitations and laches and show he's entitled to residuals as a principal performer, he could get back pay. Residuals are calculated as a percentage of gross, though, meaning that the studios didn't necessarily underpay royalties as a whole. Merely, the other actors might have been overpaid slightly.

Email: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner