Credit and Cash Fuel Clashes Over ‘Crash’

Times Staff Writer

Just days before an Academy Awards ceremony in which it could win a best-picture Oscar, “Crash” is triggering a messy pileup at the courthouse.

The film’s makers have been sniping for weeks over who deserves the most credit for getting the critically acclaimed movie off the ground. Late Wednesday, its first show business supporter, independent film financier Bob Yari, sued the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Producers Guild of America, claiming they were unlawfully denying him a producer credit that would allow him to mount the stage to accept the Oscar should “Crash” win.

In a separate but not unrelated lawsuit, one of the film’s Academy Award-nominated producers, Cathy Schulman, sued Yari, arguing that her former business partner failed to pay more than $2 million in “Crash” fees and bonuses.


If that wasn’t enough, academy officials spent hours investigating whether “In the Deep,” an Oscar-nominated song from “Crash,” should be ruled ineligible because it first appeared in a 2004 movie called “The Civilization of Maxwell Bright.” They decided to let the nomination stand.

Because all of the events occurred after the balloting for Sunday’s Oscars closed Tuesday, the film’s chances will not be affected by the developments. But they do show the contentious path to the screen -- and to Oscar prominence -- that “Crash” has taken.

The gritty film about racism in Los Angeles grossed more than $55 million. It earned six Academy Award nominations, including best picture, a category in which it is considered to have a chance of upsetting the favorite, the cowboy romance “Brokeback Mountain.”

Although Yari was the first person to agree to make “Crash” and helped arrange its financing, the producers union and the academy deemed him ineligible to be nominated for the best-picture trophy.

In Yari’s complaint, which was filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on the same day he bought ads in trade newspapers arguing the same points, his lawyers say that “for reasons he has never been told, by persons who have never been identified, first the Producers Guild of America and then the academy have denied Mr. Yari the ultimate professional acclaim, and the accompanying creative and economic benefits, to which his labors entitle him.”

Pursuing an unusual legal theory, Yari essentially is arguing that the two organizations denied him due process. But Yari is not seeking a court order to block the Kodak Theatre ceremony.


“All we want to do is to get the rules changed,” said Yari lawyer Patricia Glaser. “It’s just fundamentally fair, and we want it fixed.”

The academy declined to comment on the lawsuit. Guild Executive Director Vance Van Petten said in a statement: “We have every confidence in the fairness of our procedures and look forward to the court upholding our process.”

In an effort to curtail the proliferation of producing credits, which are often handed out on thin justification, the academy joined forces this year with the producers guild to scrutinize credits on the best-picture candidates.

When “Crash” was released in May, six people were listed in the film as having produced it.

The academy and the guild determined that “Crash” co-writer and director Paul Haggis and Schulman would be the only people eligible for the top Oscar honor.

Yari and the other three purged producers have complained that the eligibility determination was inequitable because it discounted producing chores that are unique to independent filmmaking.


Yari also was particularly angered that the guild and the academy made their decisions secretly, without taking live testimony from the film’s originally credited producers or explaining how they reached their decisions. Yari’s lawsuit argues that such a system dooms any appeal.

“Neither the decision makers, the evidence nor the reasons for the decision are ever revealed,” Yari’s lawsuit says.

In a statement, the guild’s Van Petten said the union’s arbitration process “is confidential and set up to protect and allow people to be candid and truthful where it will not affect their ability to work in the future or be sued by those who are denied producer credit.”

In her unusually personal 10-count complaint filed in state Superior Court on Tuesday, “Crash” producer Schulman and producing colleague Tom Nunan said Yari failed to reimburse some Hollywood vendors and screenwriters, thus damaging her professional reputation.

Schulman also claims Yari torpedoed the production and Sundance Film Festival premiere of the upcoming Edward Norton movie “The Illusionist” and “tried to buy himself awards recognition” for “Crash.”

“This action arises from the dark underbelly of Hollywood,” Schulman and Nunan’s complaint begins, “where an outsider, armed with enormous wealth from a career in another field, can insinuate himself into position to take recognition and money away from the people actually responsible for the creation and execution of profitable and award-winning entertainment content.”


Yari filed a lawsuit against Schulman, Nunan and others Jan. 6, arguing that Schulman had siphoned off funds that were payable to Yari’s companies, had falsely claimed that she had made the decision to make “Crash” and had leaked early copies of “The Illusionist,” undermining its sale and promotion.

Schulman’s lawsuit against Yari was far more extensive than his action against her.

“This really encompasses the entirety of their relationship,” said Mel Avanzado, a lawyer for Schulman and Nunan.

The complaint alleges that Schulman and Nunan were not paid their producing fees on three other movies made for Yari.

“The only thing that would have prevented this complaint from being filed is if [Yari] had made good on his promises,” Avanzado said.

A spokeswoman for Yari said Schulman and Nunan were paid salaries but were not entitled to producing bonuses until their movies’ revenue covered their costs.

“This lawsuit is a shameful misrepresentation of the facts concerning my partnership with Ms. Schulman and Mr. Nunan,” Yari said in a statement.


The “Crash” song dispute seems to have been resolved without incident.

The academy inquiry concluded that even if the song was in “Maxwell Bright,” it was commissioned by Haggis and composed for “Crash” in late 2001 or early 2002.