“Mr. Willis has filed several lawsuits for defamation in the past and has either obtained judgments or obtained substantial settlements in all of his lawsuits for defamation. This is not an idle threat. If you broadcast the Segment containing defamatory information about our client, be assured that you will be sued.”
With this missive to a cable TV channel, Bruce Willis’ attorney, Marty Singer, managed to kill two separate showings last week of a documentary on the actor’s impact on the tiny town of Hailey, Idaho. A documentary, mind you, that neither Singer nor his client had ever seen, the lawyer’s letter suggests. In fact, the documentary has never aired. The nation’s highest courts don’t exercise that kind of prior restraint.
“We certainly have shown controversial films in the past, but no one has threatened us in advance with a lawsuit,” explained executive director Dawn Hudson of Independent Feature Project/West (IFP/West), one of the organizations that caved in to Singer’s demands. And IFP received Singer’s threat secondhand.
A little background: Last June, writer Nancy Rommelmann detailed in a Weekly cover story how Willis and his wife, Demi Moore, arrived in Hailey to raise their family, poured $10 million to $20 million into local businesses, then abruptly closed some of them, trailing lawsuits against his company, Valley Entertainment, and fights over unpaid bills in their wake — and leaving dozens of locals unemployed. Filmmakers Brian Flemming and Keythe Farley read the story and decided that Hailey was the perfect subject for their next segment of Split Screen, the Independent Film Channel’s magazine show.
The pair decamped to Idaho, where they recorded Hailey townspeople’s views, pro and con, on the Willis era. During the filming, they were approached by several men who allegedly identified themselves as employees of Willis or his companies. The men photographed the filmmakers, who retaliated by videotaping their license plate. Pinning Flemming against the wall, one of the men wrestled him for the camera, forcing the lens toward the ground. (Sound, however, continued to roll.) Flemming’s partner called the police, who arrived before the filmmakers lost control of their film, which was later incorporated into the Split Screen segment. The filmmakers’ account of the incident was incorporated in a police report filed with the Hailey PD.
After he returned to L.A., Flemming got a call from lawyer Singer, who threatened suit over the filmmaker’s “tortious conduct.” The Independent Film Channel then asked Flemming for further corroboration of material in the documentary. Split Screen producer John Pierson went to Entertainment Weekly (EW) with the story, which ran in David Hochman’s “Reel World” column on October 15.
Citing questions EW had posed to him as part of its piece, Singer fired off the October 6 letter informing the Independent Film Channel of “substantial claims for defamation, false light invasion of privacy, and related claims that my client [Willis] has against you.” The channel stepped up its request for changes in the Flemming-Farley documentary.
“They wanted to strip the meat from the bones,” said Pierson. Facing a November 1 air date, and impasse on the proposed changes, Pierson withdrew the Hailey segment. (Film channel spokesperson Kim Becker confirmed that the program would not air, but declined further comment. Singer did not return phone calls from the Weekly.)
“It was an excellent piece, and very fair,” Split Screen producer Pierson said. He should know. Pierson has also worked as a producer’s rep, helping to bring money, talent and distribution together for some of independent film’s biggest movies, including Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, Michael Moore’s Roger & Me and Kevin Smith’s Clerks.
Pierson coincidentally was scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles October 28 for a “live” showing of Split Screen through IFP/West, presenters of the Independent Spirit Awards, the Oscars of the indie world. He informed IFP/West that he planned to show the controversial Hailey piece at Raleigh Studios. The Independent Film Channel withdrew its support. After consulting legal counsel and the board of directors, IFP/West followed suit.
“We were real sorry not to be able to show it,” said IFP/West director Hudson. But aren’t they . . . the Independent Feature Project? “Our advice from the lawyer was that if Marty Singer and Bruce Willis were willing to sue the Independent Film Channel, we were exposed to the same lawsuit . . . and when you’re forewarned, your [legal] insurance does not kick in.”
Notwithstanding promoters whose idea of artistic freedom stops where the insurance runs out, Pierson still hopes to show the documentary. Tabloid television is interested, although he doesn’t want to go that route. Flemming also is looking for another venue.
“I didn’t spend all the weeks I spent to have it end up on a shelf at some TV station,” Flemming said. “Bruce Willis doesn’t want anything said about him except what the fawning entertainment press puts out about him.”
The saga of Bruce Willis and Hailey is not dead, however. Andrew Gumbel, L.A. staff correspondent for The Independent of London, is preparing a Willis/Hailey piece for the newspaper’s Sunday magazine. He soon found himself followed by two carloads of people who photographed and videotaped him — and refused to identify themselves or provide any explanation.
“The irony is, the behavior of these assorted people generates far worse publicity about Bruce Willis than he would have otherwise had, certainly from me,” Gumbel said.
THE DOWNING FILES
When the story broke last week that L.A. Times publisher Kathryn Downing had decided to split the profits from the Times Sunday magazine’s special issue on Staples Arena with the selfsame Staples Arena, journalists and ethicists reacted with astonishment. Those who argued that Downing’s decision betrayed an ignorance of the very rudiments of journalism and an absence of ethical sense, though, failed to grasp Downing’s real mission at the Times and, indeed, at her previous jobs as well.
Longtime Downing watchers confirm that Downing’s alacrity at getting the job done in the face of recalcitrant bureaucrats and hoary traditions has been the sine qua non of her career. OffBeat has learned that during her top-secret tenure at the CIA, where she was charged with a black-ops assignment to come up with funding for new flower beds at Langley, Downing obtained large quantities of marigolds, posies and hollyhocks from the Soviet Embassy, working a deal whereby she was able to pay the Soviets not with hard currency but rather with old (and a few current) government documents that, she was reported to have said, “were just laying around gathering dust.” Weathering charges that she had failed to grasp the fundamental goals of the CIA, Downing moved on to the state agency responsible for restoring Mono Lake. Assigned to the task of finding private-sector funding for the project, Downing obtained a six-figure donation from a multinational poultry combine, which, with Downing’s full authorization, proceeded to discharge chicken entrails into the lake, causing quite a little dustup at the time.
All the while, Downing’s stock as an executive willing to challenge institutional shibboleths continued to soar. Sources tell OffBeat that Times Mirror CEO Mark Willes, after reading Downing’s résumé, chortled, “I like a gal who’ll shake things up!” OffBeat was not, however, able to confirm reports that Willes dressed Downing down for her deal with Staples, telling her, “50-50? Why not 60-40?”
THE GREAT UTLA SMOKEOUT
After years of preaching about the evils of tobacco to their students, L.A. teachers are finally putting their money where their mouths are. Last Wednesday, United Teachers of Los Angeles voted in favor of dumping more than $400 million in R.J. Reynolds (Winston and Camel) and Philip Morris (Marlboro) stock from the state teachers’ retirement-fund portfolio. The only surprise is that it took so long — and that the vote was anywhere near close (60 percent to 40 percent, union officials estimated). Assemblyman Wally Knox (D–Los Angeles) had been trying since 1996 to phase out the tobacco investments, with no help from teachers who assign children as young as 7 to join in antismoking-propaganda events such as the November 18 Great American Smokeout. Yet as late as last year, teachers rejected a similar divestiture resolution. “It is totally hypocritical,” said Karen Ehrlich, chair of the Human Rights Committee of UTLA. “Teachers should not be investing in products harmful to children.”