$1.3 million awarded in movie suit Teacher contends 'Air Up There' plot was his story idea

'They liked it used it'

Hollywood producers, companies will fight, defense lawyer says

September 21, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez and John Rivera | Rafael Alvarez and John Rivera,SUN STAFF

A city schoolteacher has been awarded $1.3 million by a federal jury in Baltimore that found that several Hollywood producers and production companies stole his story treatment in making the 1994 movie, "The Air Up There."

Samuel A. Zervitz, a special education teacher at several Baltimore public schools who lives in Mount Washington, contended that Hollywood Pictures, Buena Vista Productions, Interscope and individual producers used a seven-page script synopsis he wrote called "Recruiting" to produce the movie starring Kevin Bacon.

Zervitz said that he submitted his story in October 1989 to Baltimore Pictures, a production company owned by director Barry Levinson, for consideration as material for a full-length motion picture. Four years later, Zervitz said. his story was used to produce "The Air Up There," a comedy about a college coach who goes to Africa to recruit a tall basketball player.

The trial began July 1 and continued for four days until U.S. District Judge William Nickerson developed back trouble, causing a postponement until Monday. The jury returned its verdict about 8 p.m. Thursday.

Zervitz's attorney, Francis J. Gorman, said yesterday that after his client sent his script to Baltimore Pictures, they wrote and told him "it was interesting." Meanwhile, Zervitz had begun working on a novel about the same idea.

"He asks [Baltimore Pictures]: 'Will it be made into a movie or not?' and never hears from them," Gorman said.

He finished his novel, sent it to an agent in Florida and several publishing houses. In 1993, "His agent calls to say: 'Guess what? Your story is going to be made into a movie called 'The Air Up There,' " Gorman said.

Zervitz managed to get tickets to an advance showing in Baltimore through a friend in early December 1993 and was shocked to see his story on the screen, Gorman said. He knew the story so well he could tell what was coming next.

And then when the credits for the movie rolled, he saw that one of the producers of the movie was one of the agents he dealt

with at Baltimore Pictures.

"I knew immediately what happened," Zervitz said. "My material had gotten there, they liked it and they used it."

Zervitz -- who has a local film script to his credit called "A Very Special Present" that was produced by Uffington Productions -- retained Gorman in mid-December 1993. The movie was

released in January 1994.

Zervitz said yesterday he was "tremendously relieved" by the verdict.

The lawsuit "was a tremendous risk on the part of my family, but we were determined to take the risk and we were determined to see it through," he said.

Bruce Gridley, an attorney for the moviemakers, disagreed with the verdict. "The author hired by Interscope had notes which showed he wrote the story from June to September 1989," he said. "Mr. Zervitz wrote his story in October 1989. Because our author thought of the idea first, we are shocked by the jury verdict."

Gridley said four writers worked on the script, but the credit was awarded to Max Apple, an English professor at Rice University in Houston.

"It's interesting that three other authors [one in Louisiana, two in Los Angeles] have made the same claim as Mr. Zervitz about this movie and all of their claims pre-date Mr. Zervitz's work," Gridley said. "The idea of recruiting a basketball player in Africa had a great deal of currency since several people [Hakeem Olajuwon, Manute Bol] have that life story. Dr. Apple has written about Hakeem since 1983 and had a lot of knowledge of him and his life."

Gridley says rules of venue permit plaintiffs to sue wherever the defendant does business, which is why the case could be heard in Maryland. He would not address the question of whether a Los Angeles jury -- more familiar with the ways of movie making -- might have come to another decision.

Gridley said he will file a motion with Judge Nickerson for reconsideration of the verdict.

Pub Date: 9/21/96

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