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‘Problem Child’ Part III -- The Courtroom : Movies: Universal takes film’s child star to court in a bitter contract dispute over his salary for the sequel.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One naughty boy might spend a week with no Nintendo; another disobedient darling could go to bed without dessert. But 10-year-old Michael Oliver, who starred as the incorrigible Junior in Universal Pictures’ “Problem Child” and “Problem Child II,” has been slapped with a $190,000 lawsuit in a bitter contract dispute with Universal over his salary for the sequel.

Beginning with a pretrial hearing today in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Universal will launch a courtroom attack against Oliver and his mother and guardian, Dianne Ponce. In a case loaded with complaints and cross-complaints, the dispute boils down to a disagreement between Universal and Oliver over the renegotiation of the child actor’s contract between “Problem Child” and “Problem Child II.”

Oliver was paid $40,000 for the first movie; it earned $53 million in its domestic release. In his contract for the first movie, Oliver was guaranteed $60,000 if he made a second picture. That figure was upped to $80,000 during filming of “Problem Child.”

However, before shooting commenced on “Problem Child II,” Oliver’s contract was renegotiated to pay him a $250,000 salary. He also was guaranteed another $250,000 at least, depending on the film’s revenue. According to Ponce, she had asked for $1 million for Oliver--the same salary she said was paid to John Ritter, who starred as Junior’s harried father--but settled on the total of $500,000 minimum.

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Now, Universal wants its money back. In its complaint, Universal states that Oliver and Ponce forced Universal to renegotiate under “economic duress” by an “outrageous and wholly unjustified” refusal to perform in “Problem Child II” unless their financial demands were met. The studio therefore calls the newest contract null and void--and has demanded that Oliver return $170,000--that’s the $250,000 the studio paid Oliver for the sequel minus the $80,000 salary to which it had agreed prior to the renegotiation.

The studio also is demanding a refund of a $20,000 fee it paid to Ponce as part of the renegotiated deal, as well as an agreement that the studio owes nothing to Oliver in terms of profit participation. The guaranteed payment of $250,000 comes due in June of this year.

"(Universal) had already committed in excess of $4 million in guaranteed artists’ compensation and pre-production costs (for ‘Problem Child II’),” the complaint reads. “Casting Oliver to replay his role as ‘Junior’ was essential to the Sequel. Even if the role of ‘Junior’ could be recast, the staging of Oliver’s refusal immediately before principal photography was to commence left plaintiff without sufficient time to cast the role. . . . (Universal) had no alternative but to acquiesce in defendant’s extortionate demands. . . .”

The studio and its attorneys declined to comment, saying Universal has a policy of not discussing legal matters. Oliver’s attorney, Donald Zachary, scoffed at the notion that a 10-year-old could force a major studio “to their corporate knees.”

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“A 10-year-old did that? Tough kid!” he said.

Zachary contends that Universal’s decision to sue Oliver may have been triggered by the fact that “Problem Child II” earned only $25 million at the box office, less than half as much as “Problem Child.” With the movie’s estimated budget of $12 million to $15 million, plus marketing and distribution costs, most likely it did not turn a profit for the studio and may have resulted in substantial debt, Zachary said.

“The whole thing is bizarre,” Zachary said. “Even if they paid (Oliver) the whole $500,000, it’s . . . not going to change their (overall financial status). And they have chosen to go after probably the weakest and most defenseless person they’ve ever done business with . . . they’re going after a 10-year-old kid.

“My speculation is that they’re incensed over the fact that he was able to make a good deal under the circumstances,” Zachary continued.

He added that if Universal wins the case, it could set a disturbing precedent for the common practice of renegotiating Hollywood contracts. “If Universal’s theory is accepted, a promise made is not a promise to be kept,” he said. " . . . (if) the studio can walk away and not pay for (an actor’s performance), they can get the full benefit of the bargain without having to pay any of the agreed-upon amounts for it.”

Zachary called “specious” Universal’s claim that Oliver is guilty of extortion by forcing the company to renegotiate at the last minute. “I don’t know the exact timing of the renegotiation vis a vis the production of the movie, but in any event, Universal had a number of options available to it in response (to Oliver’s request for a renegotiation),” Zachary said. “It chose, for its own good reason, to employ Michael at a fair price for his service; Michael rendered his services, and now they want to walk away from the deal. It’s just unfair.”

Asked about the suit, David Lewin, director of UCLA’s Institute of Industrial Relations, said that Universal might have a tough time proving duress forced them to sign an unfair contract. “In the majority of cases, both sides are under duress--duress is not an unusual thing at all,” he said. “They’ll have to show that they are really under duress. Perhaps they’ll be able to do it, but it’s doubtful.”

And, Lewin added, the fact that the suit is filed against Oliver and his mother, rather than an agent, makes proving duress even more difficult. “If you want to make one of these claims, it’s better to go after a 30- or 40-year-old than a 10-year-old,” he said.

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Ponce is also the mother of child actors Danny and LuAnne Ponce, who performed in the TV series “The Hogan Family” and “City,” respectively. Universal’s action against her son came as a “total surprise,” she said from the family’s Hacienda Heights home. “They were ‘under duress’? I’ve got seven kids and I’m in show business-- I’m under duress.

“They didn’t appear to be under duress to me--they appeared to be making money with the movie and getting on with it. I don’t think they were under duress, I think they were taking advantage of a 10-year-old . . . if they don’t think that they owe Michael any money, why did they renegotiate the contract?

“Michael worked very hard on (‘Problem Child II’),” Ponce continued. “He worked very, very hard for a long time; he missed a lot of time at his own school. I can’t believe they are doing this to us.”

Ponce is also concerned that the suit will harm Oliver’s reputation. “I think he has been damaged because he is (now) considered to be a problem child, and he is anything but. He’s a really smart, funny kid,” she said.

Oliver, who was visiting his grandmother in Boston, was unavailable for comment. “He’s very upset--he’s humiliated,” Ponce said. “He’s mostly really confused--he says to me: ‘They said I did a good job.’ How do I answer that?”

The ‘Problem’ Films

‘PROBLEM CHILD 2' ‘PROBLEM CHILD’ Released July, 1991 July, 1990 Budget* $11-$15 million $11 million Domestic Gross $25 million $53 million Oliver’s Salary $250,000 $40,000

* Estimated

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Source: Exhibitor Relations Co. and court documents


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