Penn against Bing got ugly fast

Times Staff Writer

Sean Penn has declared himself Hollywood’s first political victim of blacklisting in decades. His alleged oppressor? Steve Bing, the wildly wealthy liberal playboy producer who’s donated millions to the Democratic Party and recently shelled out $5 million so that the Rolling Stones could give a free concert at Staples Center in honor of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

On Tuesday, each slapped the other with a lawsuit, both of which appear to have originated with a routine contract dispute over whether Bing offered Penn a $10-million “pay or play” deal to star in his upcoming film “Why Men Shouldn’t Marry.”

Yet given the two antagonists’ ardently held political positions and their penchants for dueling (weapons of choice: fists and tongue for Penn, lawsuits for Bing), the dispute has rapidly devolved into an ugly slugfest with inflammatory rhetoric and accusations of both “civil extortion” and civil rights violations.

A sample from the lawsuit Bing vs. Penn: “Penn’s representatives menacingly warned Bing that Penn could not be controlled, and that he was crazy and irrational. Penn’s representatives threatened that Penn would turn their business dispute into a First Amendment crusade.... Penn’s representatives also cautioned Bing that he ‘wouldn’t like’ the negative publicity that Penn would generate if his enormous monetary demands were rebuked and that the negative publicity generated by Penn would cause other people in the creative community to avoid working with Bing. Penn sought to intimidate Bing with threats that Penn would embark on an offensive smear campaign against Bing unless he was paid under the non-existent contract.”

A sample from the lawsuit Penn vs. Bing: “Borrowing a page from the dark era of Hollywood blacklisting, multi-millionaire real estate heir, major political donor and aspiring motion picture producer Steve Bing and his company have reneged on a contract with Sean Penn for Penn to render acting services in the motion picture Why Men Shouldn’t Marry because of Penn’s televised exercise of free speech rights on the January 11, 2003 broadcast of Larry King Weekend and Bing’s failed attempt thereafter to stifle further protected expression by Penn.”


So how did the oldest Hollywood squabble in the books -- a money dispute -- come to be wrapped in all this high-flown language?

It’s true, Penn has long been one of Hollywood’s most vocal antiwar activists. In October, as negotiations with Bing were well underway, he bought $56,000 ad space in the Washington Post to run an open letter to President Bush that read, in part: “I beg you, help save America before yours is a legacy of shame and horror.” In December, he embarked on a much-publicized fact-finding mission to Iraq and later gave an interview to Larry King about his views.

Though no one else has met with Iraq’s foreign minister, as Penn did, a number of other prominent celebrities have spoken out against the war. Other Hollywood liberals, like Bing, so far are staying publicly neutral while questioning privately whether there’s a rush to battle.

From Bing’s perspective, this is simply the case of a petulant actor who dragged his feet for six months in making a deal to do the film until the producer finally got frustrated and walked away.

Last summer, the pair began negotiating for Penn to play an anti-marriage guru in the movie comedy, which Bing not only wrote but planned to direct and finance. (Bing’s last directing effort was the 1993 film “Every Breath,” which went straight to video.)

The Bing camp offers this account: Bing initially was willing to pay the actor $8 million for his services. Then Penn switched talent agencies, and the producer received a call from Penn’s new agent, Bryan Lourd at Creative Artists Agency, who said that Penn has just read that Bing was paying Owen Wilson $10 million to star in the film “The Big Bounce” (which Bing was producing), and now Penn refused to work for a penny less. (He received about half that for appearing in his last film, “I Am Sam.”)

Lourd declined comment, although he has issued a statement on the legal dispute that says: “Mr. Bing has no moral, ethical or legal basis for his actions.”

According to Penn’s lawsuit, Bing had orally agreed to a “pay or play” deal -- agreeing to pay him whether the movie got made or not, provided a number of material issues such as script and co-star approval were dispatched with, which they promptly were. Penn even flew to New York with Bing on a private plane and convinced Woody Allen to co-star in the film.

According to Bing’s lawsuit and his legal representative Martin D. Singer, Bing hadn’t agreed to pay or play. They contend that many significant issues -- ranging from script approval to female co-star approval to whether Penn would get weekend use of a private plane -- were unresolved.

While oral pay or play agreements certainly exist, it is customary in the motion picture business for whoever is making the offer to follow up quickly with written letters or deal memos attesting to the fact. Bing’s side says there’s no such letter; the Penn camp points to a press release put out by Bing as evidence a deal was struck. Bing’s team says it struggled to work out the material issues with the actor, but were told by Penn’s lawyer that he had “more important” deals to work out. According to Singer, Penn’s lawyer did not respond to their inquiries “until the day Sean Penn traveled to Iraq.” That sparked a new set of disagreements.

Even after Penn’s trip to Iraq, Bing continued to try to close the deal. According to Penn’s lawsuit, the relationship soured after the actor’s mid-January appearance on Larry King. He claims that Bing asked one of his representatives “for assurances that Penn would stop making public statements about Iraq” and that Bing subsequently explained he did not wish to go forward on the picture. He claims Bing left a voicemail saying why he didn’t want Penn involved: “In the short run, the public might be fooled by propaganda and take it out on you and me by not going to the movie.” Singer said such remarks were taken out of context and did not represent an effort to stifle Penn politically.

After negotiations fell apart, the relationship became ugly when Penn and his team pressed Bing for a multimillion-dollar settlement. According to the Bing lawsuit, “Penn and his representatives instead repeatedly attempted a shake-down of Bing and Shangri-la [Bing’s company], by threatening to publicly humiliate and embarrass Bing unless their extortionate demands were met.” While the cases move toward their day in court, it’s worth remembering that Hollywood disputes often start with a bang and end with the whimper of quiet settlements.

Bing now has a $20-million offer out to Nicolas Cage to star in “Why Men Shouldn’t Marry.”