In a judgment he can't refuse, Francis Ford Coppola wins $80 million from Warner.
If it had been a movie, it would have been Francis Ford Coppola’s third-most-profitable project to date, behind The Godfather ($134 million) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula ($82 million). But it wasn’t a movie, it was a lawsuit: On July 9, a Los Angeles jury ordered Warner Bros. to pay the Oscar-winning director a stunning $60 million in punitive damages, on top of $20 million in compensatory damages, for blocking his plans to film a live-action Pinocchio. The $80 million judgment not only marked the largest civil verdict ever against a movie studio but also sent a series of unsettling aftershocks through Hollywood’s tradition-minded business community.
The case certainly had the dramatic cadences of a classic Hollywood thriller. Coppola first set up Pinocchio at Warner in 1991 as part of a three-picture agreement. The project, inspired by the 1986 death of Coppola’s 23-year-old son, Gian Carlo, in a boating accident, was clearly a very personal one for the director. When Coppola and the studio were unable to agree on a directing fee, he tried to take the project to Columbia. Warner, insisting that their handshake deal—a common business practice in Hollywood—meant it owned the rights to Pinocchio, stepped in to block the move. The project died. Coppola sued.
During the trial, the jurors were clearly swayed by the 59-year-old auteur, a compelling figure who is obviously comfortable with the role of Goliath-slaying underdog. “If they [had succeeded] in knocking me down,” says Coppola, “that [would have discouraged] many other slaves who might think they can’t stand up to the power.” The director cut a sympathetic figure on the stand, describing his ordeal in emotional detail. Warner spokesperson Barbara Brogliatti calls it a calculated image: He “told our attorneys in advance…that he would bring [the jurors] to tears.” Counters Coppola: “I was emotional because I was describing the theme of the story, and I am very much moved by this. But it wasn’t a fake thing, and it wasn’t manipulation.”
The jurors were also convinced that regardless of Hollywood traditions involving oral agreements, Warner acted with “malice” and “fraud,” according to the decision, in interfering with Coppola’s Pinocchio. (In fact, the director’s lawyers pointed out, Warner did not stop Brian Henson, once one of Coppola’s coproducers, from working on 1996’s The Adventures of Pinocchio with Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Martin Landau, released by then-rival studio New Line.) “The oral agreement [used] in Hollywood was not the issue,” says Coppola. “What was found was the abuse of that type of agreement by Warner Bros.” Responds Brogliatti: “When asked, not one juror could identify a single wrongful act that was committed by Warner Bros…. There’s absolutely no basis for the jury’s award. [It’s] simply ludicrous.” Needless to say, Warner is appealing.
Still, based on an informal poll of studio execs, business practices in the wake of the Coppola case will likely change for good. “Everybody is watching this,” says a high-ranking executive at Paramount. “It will make everyone get everything signed and sealed from now on.” Agrees an exec at MGM: “The precedent has been set. The handshake deal is a thing of the past. Terms and contracts will be infinitely more detailed.”