Flatter to deceive: Sony pays out for fake film reviews

Even by the superlative standards of the most amicable of film critics, the praise proved too good to be true. For Sony Pictures, the price to pay for its gushing - and incidentally fictitious - endorsements of a slew of film releases proved more real than its reviews.

Even by the superlative standards of the most amicable of film critics, the praise proved too good to be true. For Sony Pictures, the price to pay for its gushing - and incidentally fictitious - endorsements of a slew of film releases proved more real than its reviews.

The studio has agreed an £840,000 ($1.5m) settlement over a lawsuit brought by cinema-goers who claimed they were duped into seeing films by fake reviews, according to reports.

It was three years ago that two advertising executives at Sony were exposed as having invented a phantom film critic - David Manning. The words of Mr Manning, who was hailed as a critic from The Ridgefield Press in Connecticut, were used to emblazon publicity for a series of film releases.

The 2001 comedy The Animal was endorsed as "Another winner", Hollow Man was nothing less than "One hell of a scary ride", while Heath Ledger in A Knight's Tale was cited as "This year's hottest star". When a reporter at Newsweek exposed the fact that the man did not exist, the two executives were investigated and temporarily suspended.

But the saga did not end there. Omar Rezec, from Los Angeles, and Ann Belknap, of Sierra Madre, California, filed a class action lawsuit against Sony Pictures in June 2001. They claimed they were duped into seeing A Knight's Tale as a direct result of the fake critic's fictitious review. Yesterday, there were reports that Sony Pictures had taken steps to resolve the three-year legal dispute by agreeing to pay £840,000 into a fund to settle the case.

The payout was estimated to amount to $5 per participant in the class action, with all remaining money being donated to charity, according to a source. Sony Pictures declined to comment. It followed the decision of a judge in Los Angeles earlier this year to allow a case to be brought against the studio after its admission of faking the reviews.

For Sony Pictures, it brings to an end a lengthy and costly legal process sparked by revelations of the fake critic. Two years ago, the company was also made to pay the state of Connecticut $326,000 in compensation for its implication in the debacle.

As Mr Manning reportedly worked for The Ridgefield Press, the company was sued for the unauthorised use of the small weekly newspaper as a source of concocted movie blurbs. In a critical dressing down at the time, Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut's attorney general, said: "These deceptive ads deserve two thumbs down."

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