In Hollywood, movie deals involving millions of dollars are routinely made with a simple handshake. It's often the case that a film has been completed before the lawyers work out the details and the star signs a contract.
This may be common in industry circles. But will it make sense to a jury of Los Angeles County residents?
That's the question this week as actress Kim Basinger confronts charges that she backed out of a movie she allegedly had agreed to star in. Main Line Pictures Inc. contends that Basinger and International Creative Management breached a verbal contract for the actress to star in the film "Boxing Helena." The company's suit claims it lost nearly $6.4 million because of the breach.
In court last week, the film's director, Jennifer Lynch, testified that Basinger backed out of the title role on the recommendation of her agent, Guy McElwaine of ICM.
But from the suit's outset, Basinger's attorney, Howard Weitzman, has contended that the actress never made a final commitment to play the role. Weitzman said she turned it down because of her concerns with the character's personality and graphic sex scenes.
In the film, Helena is a woman who is rescued from a car accident by a doctor who then amputates her injured legs and unhurt arms and keeps her as a hostage in a box, hoping she will fall in love with him. Sherilyn Fenn, who co-starred in the TV series "Twin Peaks," eventually took the Helena role.
As the trial opened last Wednesday, Basinger, accompanied by actor Alec Baldwin, sat through the proceedings in the downtown courtroom. Photographers were barred from the courtroom, and courtroom windows were covered with paper.
On Friday, details of a memorandum from Main Line to Basinger were presented by the producers as the jury watched copies of the letter projected onto a screen. Among the 13 points in the preliminary agreement: For about $3-million compensation in the long run, she would work six weeks and have a "star"-size dressing room, including a VCR, sitting area and a treadmill.
There is more than passing interest in the case among the deal-makers in Hollywood. It is the second high-profile dispute involving a star's defection from a project to come to light recently. Last year, MGM slapped Woody Harrelson and producer Sherry Lansing with a lawsuit for $5 million for breach of contract when Harrelson jumped out of "Benny and Joon" and took a part in Lansing's "Indecent Proposal." In that case, Weitzman represented the studio's interest. The Harrelson case was settled out of court for less than $500,000.
There are some agents who believe that if the jury rules against Basinger, it will be tougher for actors to walk away once they've made a verbal agreement. "It will make people think twice before they pull out of things . . . who wants to go to trial?," said one prominent agent who did not want to be identified.
The agent noted that what makes cases like this interesting is the big dollar amounts that are contingent on handshakes. "This is entirely different from other businesses. And in the theater, you don't set foot on the stage until you have a formal contract signed."
Producer Carl Mazzocone said that before Basinger, he had been through a similar experience with Madonna, who he said also had at one time agreed to make "Boxing Helena" and then withdrew. "You waste months of effort putting together a deal based on the star. Then she walks off and I'm left holding the bills," Mazzocone said in an interview. "The way the industry does business is what is on trial here."
But in opening remarks last week, Weitzman asserted that Basinger is the injured party because Main Line Pictures raised money for the production by using her name and promising nude scenes. She is expected to take the stand this week.
"Boxing Helena" does not yet have a U.S. distributor.