In a development that could deflate the Oscar hopes of "The Full Monty," two New Zealand playwrights charged Monday that the idea for the popular film was stolen from their 1987 play about a group of unemployed men staging a striptease act.
An attorney for the film's producer, Fox Searchlight Pictures, dismissed the charge as an attempt to cash in on the film's commercial success. "It seems like these days, almost every film has this kind of claim," said the attorney, Bert Fields. He said he would advise his clients not to settle.
Although claims of copyright infringement are common in Hollywood, the stakes in this case are unusually high, both because of "Monty's" rare financial success and its contention for several Oscars. Such claims also typically involve material submitted to filmmakers; in this case the basis of the claim is a play that was widely performed.
"The Full Monty" was the sleeper hit of 1997. Produced for $3.5 million by News Corp.'s specialty film division, the film has grossed more than $200 million worldwide at the box office, placing it among the most profitable movies of all time. It has also received Oscar nominations for best picture, best director, best score and best original screenplay.
The playwrights, Andrew McCarten and Stephen Sinclair, alleged in a lawsuit filed Monday in federal court in Los Angeles that the film's basic premise, its setting in the economically strapped north of England and some character development were drawn from their play "Ladies Night." The play, they said, was a hit in New Zealand and ran extensively in regional theaters in the United Kingdom, where the film's creative team could have seen it.
They asked the court to award them all of Fox's profits from the film, including future profits from television and video sales. Release of "Monty" on videocassette is planned for March 10 and could bring in well over $100 million.
"Monty" producer Uberto Pasolini said from his London office that no one connected with the film had specific knowledge about the play. "I heard about all this a couple of weeks ago," he said, "but I haven't seen the play. No one connected with the film has seen the play."
Pasolini said the film "is a wholly, completely original piece of work." Simon Beaufoy, the screenwriter, could not be reached for comment.
Pasolini said the basic premise of "Monty" was not unique. "It turned out the BBC was making a film about unemployed men. . . . [British television company] Granada was doing a similar story called 'The Bare Necessities.' There were a couple of plays about it touring the north [of England.]"
Plaintiffs in plagiarism cases generally must demonstrate significant similarities in tone, incident, characterization and language between their work and the defendants'. However those questions are resolved, Monday's lawsuit could create a publicity nightmare for "The Full Monty."
The allegations are becoming public just as voting is scheduled to begin on the Academy Awards. Ballots are to be mailed to Academy voters today and are to be returned by March 17. The Oscar winners will be announced during a telecast March 24.
Any hint that "Monty" is not an original work might scare off Oscar voters, who tend to avoid films mired in such controversy. Plagiarism allegations last year by author Barbara Chase-Riboud against the producers of "Amistad" are thought to have contributed to that film's poor showing in the Oscar nomination race. Although directed by Steven Spielberg, the film garnered only one major nomination, for Anthony Hopkins as best supporting actor.
Fields said he thought that the timing of the "Monty" lawsuit was calculated to hurt the film's Oscar chances. "Where have these people been the last six or seven months?" he asked.
But Donald Engel, the playwrights' attorney, denied that the lawsuit was timed to coincide with Oscar voting. He said his clients were not aware of the film until it was completed and that "we prepared the case about as quickly as we could." Engel, one of the most influential attorneys in the music industry, said he decided to take this case because "it was just too interesting to turn down."
He said the playwrights are setting up a World Wide Web site--http://www.ladies-night.com--where they will post the text of the play so the public can "judge for themselves" the similarities.
McCarten said from his home in Wellington, New Zealand, that he believes that the film "was just 'Ladies Night' opened out . . . the changes are what we might have done in the process of making the play into a film."
McCarten said he had been in talks with the New Zealand Film Commission, which helps filmmakers line up financing, about making "Ladies Night" into a movie when he came across a synopsis of the upcoming "Monty" in Premiere magazine last year. "I was absolutely stunned," he said.
Other than a few articles in the New Zealand press last year referring to "uncanny" similarities between the play and the movie, virtually nothing has come out about the matter.
McCarten and Sinclair contend that the similarities between the film and their play include the presence of a sole black character, hints that one character is homosexual, and the impotence and failing marriage of a third character.
John Genga, an attorney not connected with the "Monty" matter who specializes in entertainment litigation, noted that copyright infringement lawsuits often face high hurdles. "You have to prove substantial, objective similarity of plot, theme, mood, setting, pace, dialogue, characters and sequence of events," he said. In addition, the more subjective criteria of the concept and "feel" of the work must be satisfied.
Also at issue would be whether the filmmakers had access to the play. The playwrights would not have to prove that any of the filmmakers actually attended a performance, but they would have to show opportunity.
Most high-profile cases are either dismissed early on or are settled out of court without publicity.
Chase-Riboud's case against the makers of "Amistad," also defended by Fields, was settled on undisclosed terms after an apology by Chase-Riboud last month. A claim against "Twister" filmmakers Spielberg and Michael Crichton early this year was rejected by a St. Louis jury.
Humorist Art Buchwald in 1995 won a seven-year legal battle with Paramount Pictures over his claim that the Eddie Murphy vehicle "Coming to America" was based on an idea that he had submitted to the studio. Buchwald and his producing partner were awarded less than $1 million, very little in relation to the time and effort spent on the suit.
Freelance writer David Gritten contributed to this story from London.