Spielberg's boss-free dream turns into a nightmare

The director wanted a brave new studio, but one film flopped and now he's being sued. Paul Mungo reports
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DREAMWORKS was meant to be a different kind of American movie studio.

The new film and media company created by director Steven Spielberg, former Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and music tycoon David Geffen proscribed formality and hierarchy by banning job titles, opened its arms to new ideas by launching a unique profit-sharing scheme for screenwriters, and set about defying the trend toward mega-budget blockbusters by making a slate of medium-priced movies.

Whatever the intention, the reality has been more prosaic. The first film from DreamWorks, a plodding thriller called The Peacemaker, was widely seen as formulaic and uninspired. Worse, it only did so-so at the box- office. Now the studio's second film, Amistad, directed by Steven Spielberg, has been hit by a plagiarism suit.

The black American author Barbara Chase-Riboud has filed a $10m claim for copyright infringement against DreamWorks, alleging that her own 1989 historical novel, Echo Of Lions, was, in the words of the suit, "brazenly stolen" to make the movie. The suit said there were "shocking similarities" between her book and the Amistad script. Both the book and the movie are based on the true story of a revolt on a Spanish slave ship - called L'Amistad - in 1839.

Race, never far from the surface in America, was also raised in the plagiarism suit. It states that it is "a paradox that the renowned filmmaker who produced and directed The Color Purple [Spielberg] would be a party to denying a prominent black American woman of letters and the arts her rightful recognition for raising public consciousness about slavery". The New York Times claimed last week that "the dispute has become a charged issue among black intellectuals" - precisely the group that DreamWorks and Spielberg had expected to acclaim the new movie. Pierce O'Donnell, the lawyer representing Ms Chase-Riboud, is threatening to seek an injunction, perhaps even this week, which would prevent Amistad opening on 12 December in the US. (The UK release is planned for 27 February.) He characterises DreamWorks' alleged plagiarism as "intentional piracy" and claims "new information" has increased the possibility of an injunction succeeding. Bert Fields, the lawyer for DreamWorks, says Chase-Riboud's claim "has no merit whatsoever", adding: "The really sad thing is this woman should be supporting this project and not trying to stop it to grab some money for herself." The studio also claims that the events contained in the movie are "part of the historical record".

The suit has come at a bad time for DreamWorks. Its original film production schedule is roughly a year behind schedule; its television arm has so far developed only three flops and one near-hit; and its other divisions are mired in red ink. In addition, the perception of DreamWorks, the first new movie studio to be launched from scratch for 60 years, as the great hope for Hollywood, is fading. "They're supposed to be an artist-friendly studio, which they're clearly not," says an industry analyst. "They seem to be playing by the same rules as every other studio - and why not? Except that they claim to be reinventing the system for the 21st century."

A low-budget movie dealing with a historical subject, Amistad was never going to be a huge box-office success. Instead, it was widely seen as DreamWorks' bid for Academy Award recognition next year: it had even been touted as a possible Best Picture nominee. Mr Spielberg is said to have compared Amistad with Schindler's List, his 1993 movie about the Second World War genocide of the Jews, and believed it would become "the definitive cinematic treatment of America's black holocaust". The script, written by David Franzoni, explores the personal relationship between the leader of the revolt, Cinque, and the American president John Quincy Adams, who ultimately argued the rebels' case before the US Supreme Court. Another central character is a prosperous black printer, played by Morgan Freeman, who is involved in the abolitionist movement.

According to Mr O'Donnell, both the Freeman character and the relationship between Cinque and Adams were "Chase-Riboud's own literary creations" and have "no basis in the historical record". The suit also states that a manuscript copy of Echo Of Lions was sent to Mr Spielberg's production company, Amblin Entertainment, in 1988.

Mr O'Donnell is a veteran of Hollywood's many and varied plagiarism suits. He represented the American humourist Art Buchwald in his successful claim against Paramount over the Eddie Murphy film, Coming To America. Unusually for a Hollywood lawyer, Mr O'Donnell plays both sides of the fence, sometimes suing the studios and sometimes working for them. He is presently lead counsel for MGM/UA in its attempt to prevent rival studio Sony from encroaching on its highly successful James Bond franchise.

There was also some good news for DreamWorks last week. The $250m breach- of-contract suit brought by studio co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg against his former employer, Disney, which had been widely expected to blow the lid off some of Hollywood's more arcane and mendacious accounting processes, was settled out of court. Katzenberg was said to have agreed a pay-off described sardonically as "Ovitz plus one cent" - in other words, one penny more than the $100m "super-agent" Mike Ovitz received when he left Disney last year.