The secret legal battle behind 'The Runaways'

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The secret legal battle behind 'The Runaways'

Thu Mar 18, 2010 @ 06:00PM PST

By Matthew Belloni

RunawaysEXCLUSIVE: At the L.A. premiere of “The Runaways” last week, screams reminiscent of a rock concert greeted real-life band members Cherie Currie and Joan Jett as they were introduced with stars Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart.  

Not enjoying a Hollywood moment that night: Jacqueline Fuchs (far right), the fiery bass player who performed in the 1970s all-girl quintet as Jackie Fox but whose absence from the premiere mirrors her disappearance from the story of the Runaways, as told in the new film.

Producers of the punk biopic, which opens Friday, chose to move forward on the project without obtaining Fuchs’ life rights or those of Runaways guitarist Lita Ford. As a result, the bassist character was minimized, Fuchs’ name was changed and Jett even dropped a cherry bomb of a lawsuit on her former bandmate when she raised a stink about the movie.

“Fuchs tried to have the ... film halted, and has demanded to see the script, even though there is no character based on her,” claims a lawsuit for tortious interference with business relationships, quietly filed against Fuchs in December by Jett, her label Blackheart Records and music producer Kenny Laguna. Jett and Laguna are executive producers on the Floria Sigismondi-directed, Apparition-released film.

The story of Jackie Fuchs and “The Runaways” provides timely instruction for producers hoping to develop biopics and other fact-based projects without getting life rights from everyone involved. It also highlights one of the hottest debates in entertainment law: With the rise in popularity of real-life, ripped-from-the-headlines film and TV, what rights are necessary to make a film based on actual people?

Despite the occasional legal dustup (or, more likely, because of them), producers and studios often overcompensate by securing more rights than are actually required.

“I can think of four or five good reasons to acquire life-story rights, but needing them to make a movie isn’t one of them,” says David Halberstadter, a rights expert at L.A.’s Katten law firm.

Halberstadter says First Amendment protections are generally stronger than producers realize and are often enough to allow depictions of real people, assuming they’re not defamatory and don’t unlawfully invade someone’s privacy. Life rights can be useful to take a person off the market or to gain access to materials that might not be public. Rights deals also typically require a subject to participate in marketing efforts, and they can give producers permission to fictionalize a story, which can help prevent complaints from people who don’t like how they’re portrayed in the final product.

But even a legally sound project isn’t immune from litigation. In the 1990s, Michael Polydoros, a schoolmate of the writer-director of “The Sandlot,” sued Fox claiming the movie invaded his privacy by including a character based on him (named Michael Palledorous). He lost.

Still, necessary or not, studios often snap up life rights as an insurance policy against potential lawsuits.

To make “The Runaways,” producers Art and John Linson optioned Currie’s book “Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway” and secured her life rights. They got rights from Jett and drummer Sandy West, as well as producer Kim Fowley, who, along with Jett and Laguna, owned music publishing rights that would be necessary to include the band’s hit songs in the film. Production company River Road Entertainment then commissioned a legal opinion that analyzed the life rights issues that might arise, and the script was adjusted to minimize risk.

Even if producers ultimately didn’t need Fuchs’ involvement, they had reason to be afraid of her. The bassist split from the Runaways in 1977 (there is disagreement about when exactly that happened, a debate explored in the 2004 documentary “Edgeplay: A Film About the Runaways”) and has since squabbled with her former bandmates about merchandising and other issues.

And unlike Jett, who went on to a successful post-Runaways music career, Fuchs instead went to Harvard Law School. Yes, Jackie Fox is now a lawyer. Focusing on showbiz, she spent years in the legal trenches at places like Columbia Pictures and Miramax and now works for an LA-based film company, which means she’s as knowledgeable as anyone about legal issues that can arise during production.

“She was sending letters around to producers and others who were involved,” says Oren Warshavsky, Jett’s lawyer. “ ‘Sounds like you’re doing something including my name and likeness; what are you going to do about it?’ That kind of thing.”

We talked to Fuchs and she wouldn’t comment on the Jett lawsuit. The complaint, originally filed in New York, was rejected by a judge last month on jurisdictional grounds. But Warshavsky says it might be refiled in California, so Fuchs is treating it as pending litigation.

Fuchs says she hasn’t spoken to Jett in a decade. And no, she hasn’t seen the film. Given the drama behind the scenes, we're curious whether it's on her to-do list.

“I’m curious whether I’m going to see it too,” she says.

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The Hollywood Reporter, Esq. blog focuses on how the entertainment and media industries are impacted and influenced by the law. It is edited by Matthew Belloni with contributions from veteran legal reporter Eriq Gardner and others. Before joining The Hollywood Reporter, Belloni was a lawyer at an entertainment litigation firm in Los Angeles. He writes a column for THR devoted to entertainment law. Gardner is a New York-based writer and legal journalist. Send tips or comments to [email protected]

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