Video wars come to life for Hollywood’s oldest directors

Singing in the Rain
Singing in the Rain
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Hollywood’s mightiest studios are being sued by some of its oldest filmmakers.

Octogenarian directors Stanley Donen, 88, and Hal Needham, 81, have been joined by nonagenarian Charles Bronson as they battle the likes of Universal, MGM and Warner Bros over lost earnings.

Donen and Needham couldn’t be more different. Donen’s reputation rests on a string of musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Former stuntman Needham built his career on a lucrative 1980s partnership with Burt Reynolds when he was the world’s reigning box office draw in films like Hooper, and Smokey and the Bandit.

As for Charles Bronson, the tough guy actor actually died in 2003. His estate is suing over receipts from his 1975 film Hard Times. Had he lived, Bronson would have been 91 – long past the sell-by-date for movie macho men.

The issue for all three is how studios calculate home video royalties for profit participants. Needham claims he is owed money over and above the 20 per cent royalty rate offered in the 1980s at the height of the home video boom. Needham, along with Donen, claims his contract predates the 1980s agreement and thus he should share in 100 per cent of home video revenue.

Such litigation is not new. Sean Connery once claimed to have sued every studio he ever worked for over unpaid dues. Some he won, some he lost. But he made the point that he wouldn’t be a pushover.

The outcome of such cases is often shrouded in mystery. Settlements are generally made out of court. The final figures are not made public.

The cost is likely to be several million dollars – pin money for the studios but a lifebelt for elderly filmmakers in their dotage. Lawyers for Needham said Warner Bros’ accounting practices “have allowed WB to wrongly withhold a substantial amount of money it receives from home video distribution” at the expense of their client.

No exact figures for damages have been made public but industry observers suggest the amount could run to millions of dollars. One has to admire their spunk. Film studios don’t take kindly to this kind of bad publicity and marshal their forces accordingly. It’s a long, drawn-out campaign that requires patience, strength and the will to fight.

Sean Connery, now 82, was a relatively young and angry man when he squared up to his foes. Time was on his side. And he was a global celebrity.

On the other hand Donen and Needham are veterans whose glory years are long past. That doesn’t make their cases any less relevant but the need for column inches and the usefulness of recognition in the eyes of the public is heightened when you’re a frail old-timer.

Their names mean less in the fast-moving 21st century. Memories are short and the Hollywood they knew is gone forever. Yet here they are. The studios should do the right thing and pay up. A contract is a contract.

My suspicion is that they will play the long game and simply wait for the plaintiffs’ energy to evaporate.