Tuesday, April 26, 2016
C.A. Tosses Suit by Man Claiming Credit for ‘Avatar’ Ideas
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A computer animator who says he gave writer/director/ producer James Cameron story ideas that became part of the 2009 science fiction epic “Avatar” is not entitled to a trial on his claims of breach of contract and fraud, the Court of Appeal for this district has ruled.
Div. Eight Friday ordered publication of its March 25 ruling in favor of Cameron and his production company Lightstorm Entertainment, Inc. The panel said Eric Ryder could not make a prima facie showing that a story he wrote in the 1990s, “KRZ 2068,” was similar to Cameron’s project or that Cameron or Lightstorm made any misrepresentations to him as to their intent to use his ideas.
Avatar, reportedly the top-grossing film of all time, is about a futuristic moon called Pandora, occupied by an indigenous species of humanoids called Na’vi, as well as by humans involved in mining a valuable mineral called “unobtanium” for use on earth. Human scientists use genetically engineered “avatars” resembling Na’vi, whom they control via a mental link, to interact with the Na’vi.
Cameron earlier this month announced plans to simultaneously film four sequels to the movie, which will be released between 2018 and 2023.
Ryder’s story, Justice Madeleine Flier explained in her opinion for the Court of Appeal, is based on Heart of Darkness, a classic story written by Joseph Conrad at the end of the 19th Century. Ryder’s telling takes place on an ice-covered moon of Jupiter, to which a female corporate assassin travels with a robot in order to investigate the death of the human base commander for her employer, a “super-corporation” involved in harvesting organisms from beneath the icy surface.
Gizmodo.com reported in 2013 that Ryder’s was one of eight plagiarism suits filed against Cameron related to Avatar, but the only one in which the plaintiff claimed to have actually provided material to Cameron, who denied that he had reviewed any of Ryder’s work.
Ryder claims he was working with Lightstorm between 1996 and 1998 to develop “an environmentally themed 3D epic about a corporation’s colonization and plundering of a distant moon’s lush and wondrous natural setting, the corporation’s spy sent to crush an insurrection on the distant moon among anthropomorphic, organically created beings populating that moon, and the spy’s remote sensing experiences with the beings, emotional attachment to one of them in particular, and eventual spiritual transformation into a leader of the lunar beings’ revolt against the corporation’s mining practices.”
He claimed that he was eventually told by Lightstorm that they would not go forward with production because no one was interested in the theme. Cameron testified that he wrote a 102-page narrative for his film in the mid-1990s but shelved the project for about a decade because the technology needed to make it was not available.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Susan Bryant-Deason threw the case out on summary judgment in October 2013, saying there was no doubt that the story was Cameron’s and not Ryder’s.
Cameron, who won a Best Director Oscar nomination for the film, which was nominated for Best Picture, told the Hollywood Reporter at the time that “whenever a successful motion picture is produced, there are people who try to ‘get rich quick’ by claiming their ideas were used” and that he was “grateful that our courts have consistently found these claims to be meritless.”
He called Avatar his “most personal film, drawing upon themes and concepts that I had been exploring for decades.”
Justice Madeleine Flier, writing for the Court of Appeal, came to the same conclusion as the trial judge.
Flier explained that because it was undisputed that Cameron wrote his narrative, or “scriptment,” before Ryder created KRZ, Ryder had to prove that elements added to Avatar beyond the scriptment were substantially similar to elements in his story. “To confer rights on Ryder over the elements already created in the Avatar scriptment under these circumstances would turn idea submission law on its head,’ the justice wrote.
No rational juror, she concluded after reviewing the 12 elements that Ryder claimed were added to the scriptment, would find that those elements were taken from KRZ, because the differences between the stories were vast and the similarities “insubstantial.”
Flier also rejected Ryder’s claim that Lightstorm committed fraud by accepting KRZ for development without telling him about its plans for Avatar. Lightstorm, Ryder alleged, “intended to secretly share KRZ…with James Cameron for the purpose of surreptitiously assisting Cameron’s continued development of Avatar.”
What the evidence showed, the justice said, was that Jay Sanders, a development executive at Lightstorm before his departure from the company in 2001, had a “genuine” interest in Ryder’s project. “In fact,” Flier explained, “Sanders believed so strongly in KRZ that when he left Lightstorm…he took the KRZ file with him and joined Ryder…in seeking to sell KRZ elsewhere.”
It would defy logic, Flier said, for Sanders to make continued efforts to sell KRZ “if he had been misrepresenting Lightstorm’s interests in KRZ simply to either feed ideas from KRZ to Cameron for use in Avatar years later or keep KRZ off the market while Avatar was dormant.” Nor, she added, was there any evidence that executives who remained at Lightstorm after Sanders left “were ever interested in developing KRZ, let alone using KRZ either to obtain ideas for Cameron for Avatar or to remove KRZ from the market.”
Attorneys on appeal were K. Andrew Kent and Gregory N. Albright of the Rincon Venture Law Group, along with James W. Colbert III and David P. King of King, Cheng & Miller, for the plaintiff and Robert H. Rotstein, Aaron M. Wais and Emily F. Evitt of Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp for the defendants.
The case is Ryder v. Lightstorm Entertainment, Inc., 16 S.O.S. 2079.
Copyright 2016, Metropolitan News Company