6 major lawsuits involving Hollywood films
From 'Avatar' to 'Straight Outta Compton' and everything in between
Hollywood, like any other industry, is not immune to lawsuits, as a recent suit against a film that's over 50 years old demonstrates. Many parties have targeted Tinseltown over the years. Here are just a few of the notable lawsuits against Hollywood films:
'Romeo and Juliet'
The most recent lawsuit against a Hollywood film came at the dawn of the new year. Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, the co-stars of 1968's Romeo and Juliet, are suing Paramount Pictures for more than $500 million for what they claim was emotional damage inflicted on the set of the film. Though now both in their 70s, Hussey and Whiting were 15 and 16, respectively, when they shot the film. The lawsuit alleges that Romeo and Juliet's director, the late Franco Zeffirelli, forced the pair to film a scene together nude, despite being originally told that they could wear flesh-colored underwear. While Zeffirelli allegedly promised the pair that the camera would not shoot them nude, Hussey's breasts and Whiting's buttocks can be seen in the final film. "Nude images of minors are unlawful and shouldn't be exhibited," the pair's attorney, Solomon Gresen, told Variety. "These were very young naive children in the 1960s who had no understanding of what was about to hit them. All of a sudden they were famous at a level they never expected, and in addition, they were violated in a way they didn't know how to deal with."
In another lawsuit against Universal Pictures, the film Yesterday was sued by fans not because of what was in the film — but because of what wasn't. The lawsuit was brought by two fans of actress Ana de Armas, who appeared in both promotional material and a trailer for the film. However, de Armas' scenes were cut from the final film, and the lawsuit alleges that the fans were victims of "false, deceptive, and misleading advertising" because they rented the film believing that de Armas would appear. While Universal has argued that a film trailer falls under the First Amendment, a U.S. district judge ruled that the pair would be allowed to sue the production company because a trailer is simply "an advertisement." Deadline reported that the lawsuit could force studios to tone down "the hyperbole visually, verbally, and otherwise." It should be noted, though, that it remains common for film trailers to include shots that are later cut from the finished work.
Director James Cameron produced the highest-grossing film of all time with his 2009 epic Avatar, and is now attempting to do the same with a sequel more than a decade later. However, it seemed not everyone was happy with the final product, as Cameron and 20th Century Fox were sued by an artist named Roger William Dean a few years following the film's release. Dean alleged that Cameron had ripped off at least 14 of his paintings to use as the basis for the planet Pandora and several of its alien creatures. However, a U.S. district court judge was able to poke multiple holes in Dean's argument, according to The Hollywood Reporter. This included the fact that Dean presented images from "books about or derived from Avatar," rather than from the film itself. The judge also stated that Dean had cropped and manipulated the images to ensure they would be taken out of context. The judge ultimately ruled in favor of Cameron and 20th Century Fox, one of a number of lawsuits that Cameron would emerge victorious from in relation to Avatar.
It's not always independent parties who sue Hollywood filmmakers. Sometimes people tied to the projects themselves start legal battles — even the stars. This was the case with Scarlett Johansson, who plays the superhero Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, following the release of the character's eponymous film, Black Widow, in 2021, Johansson — reportedly the highest-paid actress in the world at the time — sued The Walt Disney Company for breach of contract. Johansson claimed that Disney cut the film's run in theaters short to promote it on their streaming platform, Disney+, despite promising her the film would have a traditional theatrical release. Her lawsuit claims that the actress lost out on millions of dollars in box office bonuses as a result, and she was seeking $50 million in damages from Disney. The suit was eventually settled for an undisclosed amount, with Johansson saying in a statement she was "incredibly proud of the work we've done together over the years and have greatly enjoyed my creative relationship with the team [at Disney]."
'Straight Outta Compton'
Straight Outta Compton was one of the most memorable musical biopics in recent years, but some people felt the film, about the early years of rap group NWA, was inaccurate, including real-life former band manager Jerry Heller. In a 2015 lawsuit against Universal Pictures and the film's production team, Heller, who is portrayed by Paul Giamatti in the film, claims that Straight Outta Compton was "littered with false statements that harm the reputation of [Heller] and aim to ridicule and lower him in the opinion of the community." The lawsuit further alleged that the film incorrectly made Heller out as the villain of the group, adding that the studio had also violated copyright infringement because he never gave permission for his likeness to be portrayed. Heller was seeking a total of $110 million in damages, both punitive and monetary. However, he passed away soon after the lawsuit was filed, and a judge in California dismissed the case based on a lack of merit following his death.
'Borat Subsequent Moviefilm'
Sacha Baron Cohen has been subjected to numerous lawsuits and fell into the crosshairs once again when he was sued over a scene in the film Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Cohen and Amazon Studios were sued by the estate of Holocaust survivor Judith Dim Evans, who appeared in a controversial scene in which Cohen, as Borat, pretends to convince her that the Holocaust never happened. After the scene was shot, Cohen reportedly broke character for the first time in his career to explain to Evans who he was. However, after Evans' death, which occurred prior to the film's release, her estate claimed that the producers of the film led her to believe that she would be taking part in a real documentary about the Holocaust. "Had Ms. Evans been informed about the true nature of the film and purpose for the interview, she would not have agreed to participate in the interview," the lawsuit said. The case was eventually dismissed, with Amazon attorney Russell Smith telling Variety, "Sacha Baron Cohen was deeply grateful for the opportunity to work with Judith Dim Evans, whose compassion and courage as a Holocaust survivor has touched the hearts of millions."