Monday, August 9, 2010
Suit Over Documentary Profits a SLAPP, Court Rules
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
This district’s Court of Appeal on Friday threw out a lawsuit against the studio of filmmaker David LaChapelle over profits from his 2005 Los Angeles dance-based documentary “Rize.”
Div. Five in an unpublished opinion said the trial court should have struck the complaint as a strategic lawsuit against public participation because the film was a matter of public interest and the suit arose out of activity in furtherance of the right to free speech.
The panel also concluded that Krown Towers—which sued claiming it was entitled to profits from any broadcast of a 2003 dance competition featured in the film—failed to meet its burden to show a probability of prevailing on the merits of claims for intentional interference with contract and prospective economic advantage.
Krown filed suit in 2008 against LaChapelle and the film’s distributors, alleging they interfered with his contract with dancer Thomas E. Johnson, aka Tommy the Clown. According to Krown, it agreed with Johnson to invest $30,000 in “Battle Zone 5” at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood in exchange for 25 percent of net revenue from the production.
The company claimed, however, that Johnson sold or conveyed rights to broadcast the competition to LaChapelle without Krown’s permission, and that LaChapelle used documentary footage from the competition to make and sell his motion picture. Krown also claimed it hired its own filmmaker to document the event, but that the success of LaChapelle’s film rendered Krown’s footage worthless.
Named best documentary at the 2006 Bangkok International Film Festival, “Rize” takes place in Los Angeles’ inner city covering two dancing styles known as clowning and krumping, which square off in a dance competition near the end of the film.
LaChapelle responded with a motion to strike the complaint, contending that the motion failed to state a cause of action for intentional interference with contract or intentional interference with prospective economic advantage because it didn’t allege any intentional conduct to induce Johnson to breach the contract or any independently wrongful act by LaChapelle.
The filmmaker argued that he filmed the competition with Johnson’s permission and at his invitation, and that he did not know about Johnson’s agreement with Krown. LaChapelle also claimed that he filmed the event openly and conspicuously, but Krown disputed the assertions.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Morris B. Jones found that speech was incidental to the conduct alleged in the complaint and denied the anti-SLAPP motion. He also found that the motion was not frivolous, nor solely intended to cause unnecessary delay, and declined to award attorney fees.
On appeal, however, Justice Sandy R. Kriegler wrote that the complaint arose from actions in furtherance of the right to free speech in connection with an issue of public interest.
“The dance competition was held in a large venue which the general public paid to attend,” he wrote. “The documentary won a prestigious award and was distributed theatrically. If the public did not have an interest in the film of the dance competition, then Krown’s film of the same event would not have lost value as a result of the Studio’s documentary.”
Rejecting Krown’s argument that filming the dance competition and incorporating the film in a documentary is unprotected commercial speech, the justice also agreed with LaChapelle’s arguments that Krown failed to state a claim for intentional interference with contract or prospective economic advantage.
Presiding Justice Paul Turner and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Sanjay Kumar, sitting by assignment, joined Kriegler in his opinion.
The case is Krown Towers v. David La Chapelle Studio, Inc., B217526.
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