After a spirited trial that provided a rare look inside the convoluted world of Hollywood bookkeeping, Art Buchwald's allegation that Paramount Pictures stole his story and converted it into the $300-million Eddie Murphy film "Coming to America" was handed over to a judge Thursday to decide.
Superior Court Judge Harvey Schneider, who admitted from the bench he is something of a "film buff," said he probably will rule next week on a case that unfolded as a plagiaristic whodunit.
In closing arguments, Buchwald attorney Pierce O'Donnell asked Schneider to force the film studio to pay Buchwald $5 million plus "substantial" punitive damages for stealing Buchwald's 1983 story "King for a Day" to make the 1988 Paramount hit "Coming to America."
And he described as "scurrilous" suggestions by the studio during the trial that Buchwald himself stole the "Coming to America" story line from yet another movie.
"This is a desperate act of a desperate defendant, and it is a damnable lie," O'Donnell argued heatedly.
Paramount attorney Robert Draper, in his own closing argument, repeated his contention that Buchwald may have lifted the idea for his 1983 story "King for a Day" from an obscure 1957 Charlie Chaplin movie, "King of New York." Then a Parisian correspondent for the now-defunct New York Herald-Tribune, Buchwald reviewed the Chaplin movie in one of his columns published during the late 1950s.
Both stories open with a premise of a king from a mythical country who comes to the United States in search of nuclear arms, only to find himself deposed while he is away, launching a series of comedic episodes.
Buchwald sued Paramount 13 months ago on grounds that the filmmaker violated its 1983 contract with him and co-plaintiff Alain Bernheim to develop a comedy for actor Eddie Murphy about an African king who comes to Washington, D.C., is deposed, lives through a series of comic episodes in the ghetto, falls in love and takes his bride back home.
Paramount spent $500,000 developing scripts from "King for a Day" for Murphy before dropping the project in 1985. Buchwald and Bernheim then took "King for a Day" to Warner Bros.; they were reworking it as "Me and the King" in 1987 when they received word that Warner Bros. was dropping the project because Paramount was about to begin filming an original story by Eddie Murphy entitled "Coming to America."
O'Donnell argued that studios are so powerful they can use creative material as they see fit without having to answer to the original writers. Writers who challenge a studio risk their career, he said. Far from chastising Buchwald, "one of our age's great writers," for stealing the Chaplin idea, O'Donnell said that Schneider should praise the columnist for having "the guts to stand up to Paramount."
Draper asked Schneider to assume the role of a "reasonable man" who watches the movie "Coming to America," reads Buchwald's story treatment for "King for a Day" and compares the two.
Draper maintained there are as many similarities between "King for a Day" and "King of New York" as there are between "Coming to America" and "King for a Day."
"There's a Grand Canyon (of difference) between the last 'King for a Day' script" and the original Murphy treatment, which was entitled "The Quest," Draper said.
The studio's lawyer also said that Buchwald's treatment resembled "Coming to America" about as closely as "Valley Girls" did "Romeo and Juliet."
Murphy claimed story credit for "Coming To America" though two former "Saturday Night Live" writers, who had drafted skits for Murphy during his years as a cast member, were listed in the movie as providing the screenplay.
Murphy sidekick and TV talk show host Arsenio Hall testified that he, too, contributed to the "Coming to America" story, but was not given screen credit.
O'Donnell complimented Murphy as "a creative young man," but added that both Hall and Buchwald ought to have been given credit for creating the story. He said the screen credits could have read story by Murphy and Hall based upon a story by Buchwald.
"I think there's room for both, your honor," O'Donnell told Schneider.
Buchwald testified last week that he and Bernheim signed with Paramount in 1983 with the understanding that the studio would evolve screenplays out of his original idea and would pay them 19% of the net proceeds of whatever movie they ultimately developed, even if it was not faithful to the original story line of "King for a Day."
"Hollywood makes movies, but not without ideas," O'Donnell said. "At minimum, what Paramount bought was an idea, a concept. It was unique. It was original. As it turned out, this was a $400-million idea."
Murphy, who now earns $9 million a picture, was paid an $8-million salary plus 15% of the $151 million that "Coming To America" had grossed as of one year ago. Since then, the additional revenue from videocassette sales, TV licensing fees and overseas ticket revenue has put the estimated gross for "Coming To America" between $300 million and $400 million.
One of the more startling facts to emerge in the trial was the studio's admission that, even though the film was one of the biggest money generators ever, the books showed it had netted no profit. If Buchwald prevails, his next legal step would be to prove there were profits and fight for his contractual share of them.
Murphy received story credit for "Coming to America," but on his latest Paramount release, "Harlem Nights," he is credited with having written, directed and produced as well as starred.
Citing security reasons and heavy publicity at the trial, Murphy declined to appear as a witness. He maintained in an October deposition with O'Donnell, however, that he was inspired to write his "black fairy tale" about an African prince who comes to New York in search of a bride while he was on a bus ride in 1985.
Draper said Murphy was inspired to write "The Quest" by his own traumatic breakup with longtime girlfriend Lisa Figueroa. He noted that the name of Murphy's love interest in "Coming to America" was also named Lisa.