There’s an old saying in writing circles that ideas are a dime a dozen – meaning that anyone can have a good idea because ideas are easy to come by and not particularly valuable. The maxim continues to say that it’s not an idea that’s worth money – it’s what one does with an idea that truly makes it valuable. Now, a court is going to decide just how much truth there is to this theory.
Ed Zwick, Bedford Falls, and Marshall Herskovitz are set to stand trial for allegedly stealing ideas for the 2003 Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai. The legal proceeding will determine whether or not there was an implied contract between the defendants and screenwriters Aaron and Matthew Benay after the plaintiffs submitted their script during the film’s development phase. If there was an implied contract, then the court will have to determine how much the Benay brothers are owed for their idea.
This sets the stage for a fascinating trial guaranteed to not only shine a light on the behind-the-scenes dealings of the Hollywood industry (wherein writers sometimes work without receiving credit or compensation) as well as determining how much of a film’s success is attributable to the idea and screenplay and other components.
The Benays believe their idea is worth $7-10 million in damages since the film grossed over $450 million worldwide. The defendants, on the other hand, believe it’s worth about $150,000 – the amount the Benays were paid when they sold their script to New Regency after Bedford Falls and associates rejected it.
The defense is set to argue that the box office success of the film is immaterial, and that the film succeeded largely because of Zwick’s direction and Cruise’s box-office drawing power. As is typical in Hollywood, it’s yet another example of the system downplaying the value of writers.
Even if that were the case, if the Benays' script contributed key story elements (as they allege), they were at the very least robbed of not only a standard screenwriter’s fee (which in the low end would be in that $150,000 range), but also the ensuing boost to their careers that would have come from having a writing credit on a worldwide hit. $7-$10 million might seem like a lot for a single script idea, but not when you factor in how much money the Benay brothers could have earned based on The Last Samurai’s success in the intervening years (this case has been in legal limbo for quite some time).
The key to beginning to unravel this knot lies in determining whether or not the Benays' agent had an implied-in-fact contract in place with Bedford Falls when he pitched the ideas to Herskovitz and associates. If they did, then the Benay brothers should have been paid when their ideas were used. To prove this was the case, the plaintiffs plan to call producer Peter Heller to testify about how these sorts of things are carried out at many studios and production companies. Naturally, the defendants are opposed to this testimony.
Regardless of how this plays out, when everything is said and done we should all have a much clearer idea on the value of an idea – maybe they’re worth a lot more than we’ve been led to believe.