‘Borat’ could mar Universal’s $42.5-million deal

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Times Staff Writer

Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat” has grossed more than $100 million at the box office, but can the British comedian pull off another “mockumentary,” this time in the guise of a gay Austrian fashionista?

Universal Pictures has bet $42.5 million that he can.

Before “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” became a box-office sensation, Universal agreed to pay the hefty premium for the actor’s next film, “Bruno,” which it will market and distribute. 20th Century Fox, the studio behind “Borat,” turned down the project, deeming it too expensive.

Universal may already be feeling buyer’s remorse. The studio is not scheduled to release “Bruno” until 2008, but a flurry of lawsuits filed against Fox and the “Borat” filmmakers has led to predictions by some legal experts that Universal could be a target too. Some everyday people featured in “Borat” claim they were duped into believing that they were participating in a documentary about American life rather than a spoof that they claim made them look foolish.


And the legal issue may not be the only challenge Universal faces with “Bruno.” Given all the publicity surrounding “Borat,” Cohen may now be too well known, some say, to fool enough people into taking “Bruno” as seriously as is required to make the film work.

“He is going to have a real tough time making “Bruno” and so is Universal,” predicted Edward D. Fagan, a New York attorney representing two Romanians who are suing Cohen, 20th Century Fox and several others connected with “Borat” for alleged civil rights violations.

“The cat’s out of the bag,” he said.

Universal declined to comment for this story, but studio officials have indicated they plan to move forward with “Bruno.”

“Borat” was successful in part because of Cohen’s believability as a Kazakh journalist and the participants’ belief that the interviews he conducted for the film were legitimate.

For “Borat,” Cohen and a crew posing as his Kazakh news team roved the country interviewing such figures as the head of a Southern rodeo, New York feminists, former Georgia Republican congressman Bob Barr and conservative pundit Alan Keyes. Fox agreed to let the filmmakers create several phony production companies to convince unsuspecting interview subjects that they were taking part in a real documentary.

Like Borat, “Bruno” is a recurring character in Cohen’s “Da Ali G Show” a series that has its origins in Britain and was popularized in the U.S. when HBO did its own version of the program. In the series, Bruno is an aggressively gay interviewer prone to wearing see-through clothing and tight-fitting pants. In one interview on “Da Ali G Show,” Bruno asks an Arkansas pastor who claims he converts gays into heterosexuals, “Have you ever taken a walk on the brown side?” and “Why is being gay so out this season?” Clips of Bruno have been widely circulated on such Internet sites as Google Inc.’s YouTube.


For Universal, which is part of General Electric Co.’s NBC Universal division, “Bruno” concerns come as the studio is struggling to reverse what has been a difficult year. In February, Chairwoman Stacey Snider left Universal after a successful tenure to head Paramount Pictures’ DreamWorks SKG. Several films since released by Universal have been flops, including its big-budget summer movie, “Miami Vice,” as well as “The Black Dahlia” and “Let’s Go to Prison” -- neither of which were financed by the studio.

The studio has two prestige films left this year, Robert De Niro’s “The Good Shepherd” and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men.”

Some critics question whether “Bruno’s” flamboyant homosexuality will limit the film’s appeal in certain parts of the country.

Several studios including Fox balked at the rich terms. Under the deal, Universal will pay about $25 million for the distribution rights to the film and pay Cohen and producer Jay Roach approximately $17.5 million, according to people familiar with the deal who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the financial terms are confidential.

Cohen’s agents negotiated the type of deal that few stars receive nowadays. Cohen, who owns the rights to the “Bruno” character and movie, also will receive 15% of the box-office gross before the studio recoups its expenses, these people said. Cohen also has complete creative control, including the final cut and the ability to pick the director.

The “Borat” lawsuits have added another layer of complexity for Universal.

“Once you have a high-profile situation and you have lawyers circling around, your risk factor is higher,” said prominent entertainment litigator George Hedges, a partner in Los Angeles at the firm Quinn, Emanuel, Urquhart, Oliver & Hedges.


Fox is facing off against several well-known attorneys such as Fagan and Los Angeles celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred. Fox maintains that the suits have no merit and that the release form signed by the participants noted the film would be in documentary style for worldwide release.

In addition to the lawsuit filed by the two Romanians, a defamation suit was filed by two fraternity members who claim they were misled and tricked into making sexist and racist statements in a “Borat” scene.

Allred has asked California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer to investigate whether the filmmakers used unfair business practices by claiming the interview with Southern etiquette coach Cindy Streit would “be filmed as part of a documentary for Belarus Television and for those purposes only.”

“I would hope that the attorney general will look at this next venture to see whether it uses the same deceptive and unfair business practices,” Allred said in an interview. “If I were a lawyer at NBC Universal I would want to make sure that this was done in a way to avoid legal exposure.”

Although the spotlight on “Borat” seems to have brought Cohen fame, some pundits say the exposure has not been wide enough to ruin the punch line for his next spoof. And that is what Universal is counting on.

“We tend to think that everybody in the culture is plugged into “Borat,” but they are not,” said pop culture critic and historian Neal Gabler. “Even though he seems to be omnipresent, there are many people who do not know the culture of Sacha Baron Cohen and everything he represents.”