It pays to take the money and run

Times Staff Writer

Battles between authors and studios over “Hollywood accounting” are nasty, and almost never resolved in favor of the writer.

Ernest Hemingway once noted that authors should drive up to the California border and throw their books over a fence while studio officials throw bags of money back over the fence. That, he said, should be the end of the transaction.

Some of the biggest names in publishing, however, have ignored this advice.

Olivia Goldsmith, who wrote “The First Wives Club,” was incensed that she received only $250,000 in fees for sale of the film rights, compared with the estimated $181.4 million worldwide gross made by the film. “She got hammered,” literary agent Nicholas Ellison said of his late client.


Winston Groom, author of “Forrest Gump,” was also unhappy when filmmakers said their adaptation of his novel -- which at one point was the fourth-highest-grossing movie ever -- had lost money. The author, who got $350,000 for the rights, had also been promised 3% of the net profits.

Alice Walker, who wrote “The Color Purple,” was entitled to a 3% share of the gross after the break-even point from the film adaptation. She wrote in a 1987 letter to Steven J. Ross, chairman of the board of Warner Communications: “It grieves me even to have to ask about money. But I remind myself that in this case it isn’t merely a question of money, but of justice.” Walker noted that she eventually recovered “a fraction” of the money she felt was due her.

Perhaps the most celebrated case involved the late columnist Art Buchwald, who in 1988 sued Paramount Pictures over money he believed he was entitled to from the movie “Coming to America,” which grossed $350 million. Executives claimed the movie never made enough money to pay net profits. Buchwald won an undisclosed settlement after the judge called the practice “unconscionable.” But the decision applied only to his case.