Final phase of Buchwald suit over 'Coming to America' tests the value of an idea

March 10, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES 2/3 2/3 — Los Angeles -- David Picker was president of Paramount Pictures in the late 1970s when Alan Carr and Robert Stigwood talked him into making a movie out of a Broadway musical he had been unable to sit through. The upshot, he said on the witness stand last week, was the mega-hit "Grease," and the two producers walked away with $26 million.

Paul Maslansky was 50 years old and had produced 20 movies when he finally scored big. After seeing some police cadets on a San Francisco street, he testified, he was inspired to write a treatment for the first in the "Police Academy" series. He wound up making $11 million.

Clearly, having a good idea and the perseverance to follow through on it is sometimes worth a lot of money in Hollywood. But how does one put a dollar value on humorist Art Buchwald's idea and what producer Alain Bernheim's contribution would have been to the "staggering success," as their lawyer describes it, of the 1988 hit comedy, "Coming to America"?

This was the question bedeviling last week's trial in Los Angeles Superior Court marking the third, and presumably last, phase of Buchwald and Bernheim's case against Paramount Pictures. Testimony in the long-running lawsuit ended Friday. It was a week less memorable for concrete information than for colorful war stories as well as the opportunity to hear a froufrou of a movie dissected -- or deconstructed, in the parlance of English lit classes -- as though it were a work by Aristophanes.

Halfway through, even Judge Harvey A. Schneider characterized much of what he had been hearing as "fluff."

In some ways, this phase of the closely watched trial was anticlimactic. Judge Schneider, who is hearing the case without a jury, decided in January 1990 that "Coming to America," which tells the story of an African prince who leaves his homeland to find a wife, was based on Mr. Buchwald's treatment, "King for a Day." He also said there was no doubt that the studio had long considered the project a vehicle for Eddie Murphy.

The following December the judge unleashed a firestorm in the entertainment industry by declaring the 1983 contract negotiated between Mr. Bernheim and Paramount under the so-called net profits formula unconscionable and unduly oppressive. Although the movie has grossed $145 million, according to Paramount, studio attorneys say its $111 million cost was so high that it is unlikely ever to return net profits.

Testifying in behalf of Mr. Buchwald and Mr. Bernheim, Mr. Maslansky, an old friend of the producer, stood up for the value of ideas -- "our true currency," he called them. He said that the pair was entitled to receive just as much as the film's director, John Landis, who has earned $6.2 million so far in combined "up-front" fees and gross participation points. Eddie Murphy, who played the prince, has made $24 million off the film.

"Without Buchwald and Bernheim there would have been no 'Coming to America,' " Mr. Maslansky stated.

At the other extreme, defense witness Picker, whose hit movies have included "Tom Jones" and "Midnight Cowboy," told Mr. Schneider that Mr. Buchwald and Mr. Bernheim got a better deal from Paramount than he would have given them. Calling Mr. Buchwald's treatment "an idea that could not have been more embryonic in its original form," he said, "I would have paid as little as possible."

On Friday, lawyer Pierce O'Donnell asked the judge to adopt Mr. Maslansky's calculation in awarding damages, while Paramount lawyer Charles P. Diamond contended the plaintiffs are entitled to no more than $265,000, the amount of fixed fees in their contract.

Mr. Diamond said the judge should base his calculation of fair market value on the "real world" as it existed in 1983 rather than "pure conjecture." "Everything else is marshmallows. You grab it and it disappears between your fingers," he asserted.

Mr. O'Donnell, however, said that Paramount should be forced to pay his clients what their contribution was worth in 1987, when the studio had committed to filming "Coming to America." Both Mr. Picker and another defense witness, producer Martin Ransohoff ("Jagged Edge" and "Silver Streak"), testified that Mr. Bernheim would have commanded a much greater sum if Paramount had waited until after Mr. Murphy and Mr. Landis were involved before buying rights to "King for a Day."

Both sides expressed optimism. "This case will endure forever in the hearts and minds of people who put greater value on principles than profits," Mr. O'Donnell declared.

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