10 Films That Spawned Major Lawsuits

We all know how litigious Hollywood can be, especially in this day and age, when summer blockbusters regularly rake in billions at the box office. Movies are a big business, and big business goes hand-in-hand with legal complications.

Sometimes writers overextend themselves, slipping into other people’s copyright unannounced; sometimes productions don’t take the necessary precautions, and someone gets hurt on set; and sometimes, there are just those people on the outside gazing in who want to make a quick buck from an industry with plenty to spare. Whatever the reason, many, many movies have spawned some pretty major lawsuits—though not all of them end in a million-dollar payout.

Related: 10 Celebrities Who Were Sued By Their Fans For (Mostly) Ridiculous Reasons

10 American Hustle (2013)

It’s not often a writer gets name-dropped in a Hollywood movie, and when it does happen, it’s usually someone from the world of fiction—Ayn Rand, Charles Bukowski, or Stephen King. But maybe there’s a good reason for this as, on those rare occasions in which the print media does get a look-in, it doesn’t always end well.

Enter David O. Russell’s American Hustle, which purports to be based on a true story. In the film, Jennifer Lawrence’s character claims the microwave takes nutrition out of food, citing former New Yorker staff writer Paul Brodeur as her source. The thing is, Brodeur never said anything of the sort.

In direct response to this claim, he filed a $1 million defamation lawsuit against Sony’s Columbia Pictures and the film’s other producers, claiming that the inclusion of this line in the film had damaged his reputation. While Brodeur progressed his claim beyond the studio’s initial objections, the suit was brought down by California appeals court justice Elizabeth Grimes, who concluded that the comedic nature of the film meant Brodeur’s complaint had no reasonable chance of success.[1]

9 Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2016)

While filming a stunt in Cape Town for the sixth Resident Evil movie, stuntperson Olivia Jackson’s motorcycle collided with a camera crane-mounted vehicle at high speed. From the crash, Jackson suffered life-threatening injuries, including degloving of her facial skin, a severed artery in her neck, and spinal cord nerve damage, all of which prompted doctors to put her into a medically induced coma to minimize damage.

It turns out that director Paul W.S. Anderson instructed the uninsured driver of the camera vehicle to drive closer to Jackson than planned to obtain a more exciting shot. As the accident took Jackson’s right arm and ended her stunt career, she filed for damages against Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt in L.A. Unfortunately, the court dismissed her case since other parties were involved and the incident itself took place on location in another country.

Nonetheless, Jackson pursued South African company Bickers Actions SA, who had been central to the planning and execution of the sequence and wound up winning her lawsuit for an undisclosed amount.[2]

8 Back to the Future Part II (1989)

The Back to the Future sequel was an all-but-guaranteed success, given the overwhelmingly positive reception of the first film and its cliffhanger ending. Still, not all the original actors wanted to return. Due to personal issues, Claudia Wells departed from the role of Jennifer Parker, Marty McFly’s (Michael J. Fox) girlfriend. Crispin Glover refused to reprise his role as George McFly (Marty’s father) when producers wouldn’t cut him a $1 million check for the bit-part.

Rather than just replacing him with a lookalike, the filmmakers opted to use face molding of the actor from the first film to create a prosthetic for new actor Jeffrey Weissman to wear during scenes. As we know from the ongoing debate around AI, the likeness of an actor is of great litigious importance. So this did not go over well with Glover.

The actor initiated legal proceedings against Universal Pictures for violating his right of publicity. After Universal’s bid to throw the lawsuit out was rejected, they settled for a reported $760,000. Perhaps it would have been easier to just give Glover his million in the first place.[3]

7 Camp Hell (2010)

By 2010, Jesse Eisenberg was a bankable name in the movie industry, with everything from indie hits like The Squid and the Whale (2005) to major blockbusters like Zombieland (2009) under his belt. It comes as some surprise then that he agreed to star in poorly received direct-to-video horror Camp Hell, yet agree, he did—as a favor to friends.

The problems arose when Eisenberg caught wind of the movie’s promotional material, which put the star’s name and image front and center in an attempt to profit from his elevated profile despite his character being barely more than a cameo in the film. In response, the actor filed a lawsuit against distributors Lionsgate and Grindstone Entertainment for $3 million—more than the movie cost to make.

Despite the companies responding with an anti-SLAPP motion, arguing dismissal on the grounds of free speech, L.A. Superior Court Judge Linda Lefkowitz denied the motion, allowing the case to proceed. We may never know whether Eisenberg won or not, as neither party publicly disclosed the case’s resolution.[4]

6 Giallo (2009)

Although Italian filmmaker and master of the surreal Dario Argento made his name in the horror cinema of the 1970s and ’80s, he has continued to make films ever since. Unfortunately, most of his output this century has failed to live up to the heights of his career, leaving much to desire from half-baked horrors and thrillers that don’t quite land.

One such flop comes in the form of Giallo, his Adrien Brody-starring horror-thriller, which is today better known for its controversy rather than anything to do with the film itself. When Brody’s $640,000 paycheck didn’t come through, the actor began a legal process in which he attempted to block the film’s sale to distributors.

While this move failed, U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer nonetheless managed to halt the film’s release in the U.S. by preventing filmmakers from using Brody’s likeness or distributing the film until the matter could be settled. Thankfully, Brody and the film’s backers reached a settlement, the actor got his money, and the film was released to little fanfare and zero acclaim.[5]

5 Happy Death Day (2017)

Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day films brought a new edge to meta-horror in the late 2010s, splicing traditional horror elements with mystery, time travel, and a Groundhog Day. This was also while creating an iconic new villain—the Bayfield Babyface Killer, who wears a mask that looks like, well, a baby. But the blue-eyed, giggling baby didn’t leave everyone with a smile on their face.

The creator of the New Orleans Pelicans “King Cake Baby” NBA mascot, Jonathan Bertuccelli, sued production company Universal Pictures, seeking at least 50% of the film’s profits on the grounds of copyright infringement. He claimed the mascot’s likeness had been used for the film’s Babyface mask. And the resemblance between the two is hard to deny.

Although the proceedings went on for several years, with Bertuccelli attempting to prevent the studio from using the likeness in any further films, he managed to reach a settlement with Universal in 2021. Although this freed up the Death Day franchise for future installments with the character, the proposed third film’s cancellation in 2023 makes it a moot point.[6]

4 Predator (1987)

Since the 1980s, the Yautja (the name for the Predator alien species) have gone on to have a long life across all media. But the first Predator film is the one that made them iconic. And screenwriting brothers John and James Thomas brought it to life, balancing sci-fi, horror, suspense, and action on a knife’s edge for one of the decade’s defining movies.

While the brothers happily sold the rights for their work to 20th Century Fox back in the ’80s, the company’s acquisition by Disney in 2019 presented something of a change in the filmmaking landscape, from which the pair sought to rescue their intellectual property. As the U.S. Copyright Act allows authors to recapture their ownership rights after 35 years, they thus made a bid to terminate Disney’s rights to their script—which the House of Mouse denied.

It was on these grounds that they sued the studio, and while Disney/Fox counter-sued, all lawsuits were ultimately voluntarily dropped, and a resolution was secured in 2022. With a subsequent franchise installment, Prey, released later that year, with both Thomases listed as executive producers, it seems it was an amicable resolution all around.[7]

3 The Unborn (2009)

David S. Goyer’s supernatural horror The Unborn may have been left behind by horror fans en masse, but the legal proceedings around it survived long after audiences had forgotten the film. The plot centers on a woman being haunted by her dead twin brother. While this is nothing especially new or exciting, Daniel Segal—a relative of author Erna Segal—spotted some uncanny similarities between this and Erna’s 1990 book Transfers.

He sued for damages of over $1 million, citing, in an unusual turn of events, not copyright infringement but breach of an implied contract. This is because Segal had made a previous proposal to adapt Transfers with Relativity Media—the production company responsible for The Unborn—on which the company had supposedly reneged.

However, not all lawsuits can be successful. Segal’s claim was thrown out in 2011, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit stating that the works were not similar enough despite featuring a haunting between twins. Segal’s further attempt to appeal and resurrect the case in 2014, four years after his initial filing, was also unsuccessful.[8]

2 Black Widow (2021)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most profitable film franchise of all time despite only being around for a decade and a half so far. But with great financial gains comes great responsibility, and sometimes the Marvel studio heads (and, by extension, their parent company, Disney) haven’t always made the right decisions.

Prequel Black Widow offered a final look at the fan-favorite character following her on-screen death in Avengers: Endgame (2019). Actress Scarlett Johansson returned to see the role to its conclusion. Given her star status and the virtual impossibility of a Black Widow film without Johansson’s input, she was able to negotiate a cushy remuneration package that involved a cut of box office sales (known as first-dollar gross).

Things hit a snag, however, when Disney released Black Widow to their streaming service Disney+ on the day of the film’s release, undercutting potential earnings for Johansson and leading the actress to sue them for breach of contract. The lawsuit was resolved uncommonly quickly, within months of it being filed in 2021, resulting in a $40 million payout to the star.[9]

1 The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Director Drew Goddard and writer Joss Whedon breathed new life into a whole plethora of well-worn horror tropes with their meta-horror The Cabin in the Woods. The film took a bite out of just about every existing franchise, villain, setup, and stereotype. It situated its action around a facility that inflicts a comprehensive playbook of horror nightmares upon a group of unsuspecting students on their getaway to—no prizes for guessing—a cabin in the woods.

While the majority of the directors and writers the film was paying homage to had no problem with the concept, one person didn’t quite get it. Author Peter Gallagher filed a $10 million suit against Whedon, Goddard, and Lionsgate, claiming they plagiarized his 2006 novel The Little White Trip: A Night in The Pines, in which a group of friends go on a remote skiing trip and get picked off one-by-one before it all turns out to be a reality television hoax.

Needless to say, the suit was resolved in favor of the filmmakers within six months. U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright II dismissed the case on the grounds that students traveling to remote locations and being murdered by evil forces is an unprotectable premise. And it’s hard to argue with that.[10]

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