Caution: Sign now, sigh later?

Times Staff Writer

First they met up with a zany British comedian hiding behind a faux-Kazakh accent, a video camera and a mean streak. Now, they're caught up in a little adventure that might be called "Cultural Learnings of What Happens When You Sign Glorious Hollywood Release Form."

A Tennessee rodeo manager, some New York feminists, a Southern pastor and many others who appear on screen in "Borat" say they were duped into believing they were participating in a documentary about American life that was to be shown in Kazakhstan. It was only after the cameras started rolling and the mustachioed man in the rumpled suit launched into his routine that they realized they were on their way to becoming the unwitting stars of a mockumentary that is on track to earn more than $100 million in domestic box-office receipts.

Since the movie's Nov. 3 release by 20th Century Fox, two fraternity members from the University of South Carolina have filed a lawsuit over their portrayal in the movie, and Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred has asked California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer to investigate whether the making of the movie violated business practices.

Whether those complaints gain any leverage remains to be seen -- a representative for Lockyer chuckled when asked about the prospects of an investigation. But the flap over "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" is certain to shine a spotlight on the time-honored Hollywood release form.

Such forms have been used for as long as film and television producers have been trying to avoid lawsuits and have become more commonplace thanks to reality shows and "Candid Camera"-style fare such as HBO's "Taxicab Confessions" and "Girls Gone Wild" videos.

All who appeared in "Borat" reportedly signed a standard consent agreement allowing producers to use their real identities on screen. In doing so, they may have also signed away their right to complain about it.

Legal experts say that these releases are usually iron-clad, unless it can be proven that outright fraud was committed in inducing people to sign the contract.

"The whole concept of making people look foolish in an unsuspecting environment has been happening since 'Candid Camera,' " said entertainment law attorney Mel Avanzado, who has represented producers on issues related to unscripted TV shows. " 'Borat' is not new. It's just taking it to a new level of silliness."

Many of those who appear in "Borat" feel they were publicly humiliated, but Avanzado says that, legally speaking, is not sufficient grounds for a lawsuit. "It's not that you are placed in an embarrassing light," he said. "You have to be placed in a false light."

Attorney Eric Weissmann, who has represented various studios over the years, said the release forms are generally "very good and very binding. The only problem with them is if the release forms are obtained under false premises," he explained. "If you hypnotize somebody and you make them sign the form and they didn't know what they were signing -- and if you can prove that -- then you have a good chance [of voiding the contract]."

In the movie, Sacha Baron Cohen takes on the persona of Borat, a Kazakh journalist, and places himself in one situation after another in which he pretends to be interviewing his subjects about American culture, only to stun and shock them with outlandish comments and even more outrageous actions.

The Rev. Cary Speaker, pastor of Mountain Brook Presbyterian Church in Alabama, said he and his wife, Sally, agreed to join Borat for a dinner at which they and others planned to showcase the kind of hospitality and etiquette that Southerners are known for.

"People at the dinner thought they would be entertaining a foreign diplomat or journalist," Speaker recalled.

But it soon became apparent that that was not the case: At one point during the dinner, Borat excused himself to use the bathroom and returned holding a sack of feces.

"That was probably the tipping point for me," Speaker said, and recalled thinking: " 'I don't know who this guy is, but he is not who he said he is.' ... Sally and I left there pretty angry. We had been tricked, and nobody told us who this character was. Finally, I said, 'But you know, if I were sitting there at home watching this thing on TV, I could imagine thinking this guy is pretty funny.' "

During another "interview," New Yorkers Grace Welch, Linda Stein and Carole De Saram, members of a group called Veteran Feminists of America, agreed to sit down with Borat and discuss women's rights. Instead, Borat began asking them if women deserve to be educated and whether it is true that women have smaller brains than men.

Welch, like many others who believed the film was a legitimate documentary, never bothered to read the release before signing it. The brief contract with One America Productions Inc., the producers of "Borat," states that she agrees to be recorded for a "documentary-style" film aimed at a young-adult audience "by using entertaining content and formats." With her signature, she also agreed to forgo any claims of fraud, infliction of emotional distress or defamation and stated that the filmmakers could use the recorded material "without restriction in any media throughout the universe in perpetuity and without liability to the participant."

"I did not read it at all," Welch conceded, adding: "I didn't know there was going to be a blockbuster film. I thought there was going to be a documentary so he could take it back to his [country]."

Controversy over the movie reached the legal arena this month, when two fraternity members from the University of South Carolina filed suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court in Santa Monica alleging that they were duped into making racist and sexist comments on camera after a "Borat" production crew took the students to a bar and, after a bout of heavy drinking, induced them to sign a release.

A spokesman for 20th Century Fox, which released the film, said the suit "has no merit."

Sources say Fox has contacted attorneys in cities close to where the movie was filmed to have them ready should lawsuits be filed in their respective areas.

Attorney Ronald E. Guttman, an expert in constitutional and media law who has worked with CBS' "60 Minutes," Sony and the makers of "Girls Gone Wild" videos, said that there just aren't many legal arguments that can overturn a release form, particularly if the subject is doing or saying something in public -- even if inebriated.

Guttman said that although you can't intrude on private property to get pictures of people making fools of themselves, "If you're standing up on the bar and stripping naked and the doors are open and people are coming and going, there is no expectation of privacy."

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