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Most TV films have a relatively short shelf-life, but not Lifetime Television’s telefilm Romeo Killer: The Christopher Porco Story, which is destined to be remembered thanks to a crazy long legal battle that got the attention of Hollywood’s top studios.
Back in 2013, Lifetime was all set to air its biopic of a man convicted for murdering his parents when shockingly, a New York judge halted it. The reason was that Porco himself alleged that the movie was a “substantially fictionalized account.”
The injunction was lifted after the cable network filed an emergency appeal, but the case didn’t die.
In fact, in 2017, the New York appeals court overturned a dismissal of the case with the opinion that although biopic filmmakers can beat a privacy claim using an exception for anything newsworthy, plaintiffs could overcome this exception by showing too much fictionalization.
Now, once again, a New York appeals court is weighing in on the long-running case. On summary judgment, Porco’s suit against Lifetime was dismissed, and on appeal, all of Hollywood’s top studios plus many book publishers urged the judges in an amicus brief to hold that the First Amendment protected expressive works inspired by real people and events.
Today, Lifetime’s victory is affirmed.
Justice Molly Reynolds Fitzgerald writes that Romeo Killer “presents a broadly accurate depiction of the crime, the ensuing criminal investigation and the trial that are matters of public interest.”
She continues: “More importantly, the film makes no effort to present itself as unalloyed truth or claim that its depiction of plaintiffs was entirely accurate, instead alerting the viewer at the outset that it is only ‘[b]ased on a true story’ and reiterating at the end that it is ‘a dramatization’ in which ‘some names have been changed, some characters are composites and certain other characters and events have been fictionalized.’ In our view, the foregoing satisfied defendant’s initial burden of showing that the film addressed matters of public interest through a blend of fact and fiction that was readily acknowledged, did not mislead viewers into believing that its related depictions of plaintiffs was true and was not, as a result, ‘so infected with fiction, dramatization or embellishment that it cannot be said to fulfill the purpose of the newsworthiness exception.'”
In other words, the disclaimer helped save Lifetime here.
The full opinion also notes that New York’s privacy/publicity right statute is a narrow one and that Porco “failed to raise a material question of fact as to whether the degree of fictionalization of the film transformed it into a material and substantially fictitious biography, the purpose of which was an effort to trade off plaintiffs’ names and likenesses.”
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