The wildest cinema heists, as “The Hollywood Economist” columnist Edward Jay Epstein coolly demonstrates in Slate and his book The Big Picture, are not committed by fictional, gun-toting robbers but by real-life accountants, lawyers, and studio executives packing fountain pens.
Today’s (June 27) New York Times untangles a recent Hollywood lawsuit filed by the director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson, against Time Warner’s New Line Cinema subsidiary, in “The Lawsuit of the Rings.” Jackson’s suit charges that New Line defrauded him out of millions by the way it sold the rights to merchandise, books, and DVDs related to his first installment of the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. The studio used “pre-emptive bidding” to sell some of the rights to other Time Warner subsidiaries rather than accepting open bidding. This suppressed the gross receipts, the suit contends, and because Jackson’s deal with New Line was for a percentage of the gross, he may have been underpaid by $100 million for all three movies, according to his lawyers.
So far, so good. But then the piece turns to an unnamed New Line lawyer, “speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is working on this lawsuit,” writes Times reporter Ross Johnson, who says “the money paid to Mr. Jackson so far is in line with the contract he signed.” The lawyer is quoted as saying:
Peter Jackson is an incredible filmmaker who did the impossible on Lord of the Rings. … But there’s a certain piggishness involved here. New Line already gave him enough money to rebuild Baghdad, but it’s still not enough for him.
Whoa! That’s great dish, but shouldn’t there be a Times policy against giving a partisan source, in this case a defense attorney, the cover of anonymity to call the plaintiff in a case against his client piggish? As a matter of fact, there is such a published policy limiting what anonymous sources can say in Times articles. In “Confidential News Sources,” on the paper’s corporate Web site, the policy reads in part:
We do not grant anonymity to people who use it as cover for a personal or partisan attack. If pejorative opinions are worth reporting and cannot be specifically attributed, they may be paraphrased or described after thorough discussion between writer and editor. The vivid language of direct quotation confers an unfair advantage on a speaker or writer who hides behind the newspaper, and turns of phrase are valueless to a reader who cannot assess the source.
The cheap shot mars what is an otherwise good piece. Johnson reports that in similar “vertical integration” suits, Hollywood has negotiated settlements rather than allowing its top executives to be deposed and reveal their accounting secrets. Producers and actors from the TV shows Home Improvement, Cops, M*A*S*H, and The X-Files won such settlements.
You could argue—on the record, of course—that Jackson suffers from piggishness. After all, his Rings deal is for 20 percent of total gross revenues, and he’s collected $200 million to date, according to the Times. But why should it be piggish for Jackson to ask a court to determine whether New Line swindled him but not piggish for the well-lined pockets of New Line—which has reaped $4 billion in total revenues for the series—to lust for the disputed loot?