Film

SDNY Judge Dismisses “Hustlers” Invasion of Privacy and Defamation Claims

By: Sara Gates


In an opinion rife with references to adult entertainment and drugs, a judge in the Southern District of New York recently dismissed an invasion of privacy and defamation case over a plaintiff’s apparent depiction in the 2019 film “Hustlers.”  See Barbash v. STX Financing, LLC, Case No. 1:20-cv-00123-DLC (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 10, 2020).  For the uninitiated, the film was based on a 2015 article in New York Magazine that described a scheme undertaken by a group of adult entertainment hosts and dancers at two clubs in Manhattan who allegedly drugged patrons and stole large sums of money while they were incapacitated.  The plaintiff, Samantha Barbash, along with several others were charged for their roles in the scheme, and Barbash ultimately pled guilty to conspiracy, assault, and grand larceny. 

Though Barbash herself spoke with the New York Magazine reporter, and later gave other interviews, and published a memoir on the subject, she did not consent to Jennifer Lopez’s depiction of her character in “Hustlers,” so she filed suit against the producers and distributors of the film earlier this year for invasion of privacy, under N.Y. Civil Rights Law § 50 and § 51, over the use of her identity, likeness, and character in the film and marketing materials.  She also alleged that six statements and scenes in the film, primarily regarding the preparation and possession of various drug cocktails, were defamatory. 

On the defendants’ motion to dismiss, District Judge Denise Cote considered whether New York’s statutory right to protect an individual’s “name, portrait, picture and voice” from commercial appropriation—in the absence of a common law right, which New York does not recognize—also protects an individual’s likeness and character.  Looking at the legislative intent that the statute be construed narrowly, and prior case law, the court determined that Barbash’s allegations in her amended complaint that the film’s use of her likeness and character was insufficient to support a claim under N.Y. Civil Rights Law § 50 and § 51.

Turning to the defamation claim, the court considered whether Barbash had alleged the requisite elements for such a claim, focusing on (1) whether the film was “concerning the plaintiff,” (2) whether the statements and scenes were false, and (3) whether, as the defendants argued, Barbash was a limited-purpose public figure, which would require her to allege a higher burden of fault.  For the first point, the court questioned whether the plaintiff is recognizable in the film, such that someone who knows her would be able to make her out.  Based on the allegations in the amended complaint, which the court accepted as true on the motion to dismiss, this element was satisfied. 

For the second point, the court evaluated each of the six statements, one by one, to determine whether Barbash alleged that the statements were “substantially” false, given that “substantial truth” or that the overall gist or substance of the statement is true, is the benchmark to avoid defamation liability in New York.  Five of the statements (and accompanying scenes) were drug-related, namely, alleging that the character (1) concocted, (2) manufactured, (3) possessed, (4) used, and (5) provided drugs to individuals without consent.  The sixth statement concerned the character’s personality, describing her as cold and indifferent.  As the court was able to take judicial notice of Barbash’s guilty plea, in which she pled guilty to conspiracy for providing victims with illegal drugs to gain control of their credit cards, the court determined that her provision of drugs to unconsenting victims was substantially true, and drug possession could be inferred, so these two statements could not support a defamation claim.  The court also determined that the sixth statement regarding the character’s personality was non-actionable opinion.  The court, however, could not make a determination about the other drug-related statements at this early stage in the case.

Finally, the court turned to the question of whether Barbash was a limited-purpose public figure, which would heighten the level of fault that Barbash would need to prove in order to succeed on her defamation claim.  For private persons, a plaintiff litigating a defamation claim in New York (and most other jurisdictions, for that matter), need only show that the defendant was negligent in making the alleged defamatory statement.  For celebrities and public figures, however, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant had acted with “actual malice” (i.e., knowledge that statements were false or reckless disregard as to their falsity) in making the statement.  The higher burden for public figures serves an important First Amendment purpose and provides breathing room so that people and publishers may engage in free public debate about people in the public eye, that may include some inadvertently false factual assertions without being subject to liability (and, consequently, chilling free speech).  Actual malice has also been applied in limited circumstances to private persons who become limited-purpose public figures where they voluntarily inject themselves into a public controversy or issue, seek media attention, and assume a position of prominence in relation to the particular issue.

Arguing for dismissal of the defamation claim, the defendants asserted that, based on Barbash’s criminal conduct, in which she voluntarily injected herself into the public arena, she should be treated as a limited-purpose public figure.  The court agreed, relying on Barbash’s 2015 guilty plea, her continued cooperation with the press, including for the 2015 New York Magazine article and 2019 and 2020 Vanity Fair articles after the film was released, both of which included portraits of Barbash, and her 2020 memoir on the events depicted in the film.  In opposition, Barbash argued that she should not be required to meet the higher standard because she was unwillingly dragged into the public arena, and that her later interviews were an attempt to set the record straight.  The court disagreed, noting that while Barbash is entitled to tell her side of the story, her engagement rendered her a limited-purpose public figure.  As such, Barbash would have had to plead actual malice, which she did not do in her amended complaint.  For these reasons, the court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss without resolving whether the remaining statements were legally defamatory.

The Barbash decision adds to a growing body of case law in the Southern District on the proper application of N.Y. Civil Rights Law § 50 and § 51 and the analysis of defamation claims involving films based on prior public articles or records.  Barbash confirms that New York’s right of privacy statute remains limited in scope. As to defamation, the plaintiff’s use of the media worked against her, as it provided grounds for the defendants to argue that she rose to the level of a limited-purpose public figure.  That may not be available in every case involving prior reports and guilty pleas, especially where the individual did not continue to make themselves available to the media. 

In any case involving the use of a person’s likeness and character, filmmakers, producers, and distributors should ensure that they are consulting counsel about rights and clearances, especially because other states’ right-of-publicity laws may have a broader statute or recognize common law privacy rights, and courts in other parts of the country will likely have diverse views on who constitutes a public figure for purposes of defamation. 


Proposed Guidelines for Resumption of Motion Picture, Television and Streaming Productions

By Amy Stein

Earlier this week, the Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee Task Force released proposed policies and guidelines for the recommencement of productions, known as the White Paper. As of June 1, the White Paper was submitted to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and California Governor Gavin Newsom for review.

The Task Force, comprised of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, major studios (e.g., Amazon Studios, Apple Studios, HBO, Netflix, Sony, Walt Disney, Warner Bros. Entertainment, Fox), and many guilds and unions (i.e., Director’s Guild of America, I.A.T.S.E. and its West-Coast Studio Local Unions and New York Local Unions, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Basic Crafts Unions, and SAG-AFTRA), sought expert advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, health care professionals, and industry professionals who know the ins and outs of production working conditions.

The White Paper is meant to be fluid and will evolve over time in conjunction with governmental suggestions and requirements. As of now, the White Paper is intended to create the initial road map to a safe return to production, which provides guidelines with respect to, for example, “regular, periodic testing of cast and crew for Covid-19,” “universal symptom monitoring, including temperature screening,” providing disposable masks which will be replaced each day, social distancing, as well as suggestions for access to mental and physical health resources.

While the White Paper will directly affect the productions produced under the studio and network system, it also provides a framework for independent films to follow (which frame work will have to comply with governmental requirements and protocols in the jurisdiction of production, and will have to be approved by the applicable guild(s)/union(s) of the production).

It should be noted that the White Paper is a set of recommendations for government authorization to commence production and has yet to be commented on by any governmental authority or department. The White Paper can be found here.

Character Exclusivity in Rights Deals

By Simon N. Pulman

In this increasingly competitive media landscape, companies are seeking to create entertainment brands that can endure, serve as the basis for dozens of hours of content on the new generation of owned-and-operated premium platforms, and extend across various forms of media. However, transmedia deals are seldom straightforward, and may create issues that one is less likely to encounter when negotiating a relatively simple deal for a book-to-film adaptation.

One such issue is character exclusivity – the idea that when an entertainment property has multiple rightsholders, certain characters (or, in hyper-complex instances, certain characteristics of certain characters) are owned exclusively by only one rightsholder. The phenomenon of character exclusivity (and the schism in a property that it tends to create) tends to arise from one of three main deal-making circumstances, as follows:

Creator Sequels

Traditionally, a purchaser in a rights deal acquired only one “installment” of a property, such as a novel. In the event that the author of that novel decided to write a sequel, the film and television rights in that sequel would typically be “held back” for a period of time (usually between three and seven years), and the purchaser of the first book would have a first negotiation right and some kind of matching right to acquire the rights in the sequel.

That structure is fine when one is acquiring a discrete novel for which a sequel is a hypothetical future possibility, and which would be (if written) a direct continuation of the original story. It works less well when a property is conceived from the ground up as a series, an anthology, or a shared universe (more on that below). However, even this relatively simple traditional structure begs the question: what happens if the original purchaser does not acquire a sequel?

Most studios include some form of the below language in their option agreements with respect to the creator’s reserved sequel rights:

“If Purchaser does not acquire any Author-Written Sequel, then Owner’s right to dispose of any rights in such Author-Written Sequel shall not include the right to produce or cause the production of any audiovisual production which contains any of the characters or incidents contained in the original Property.”

In essence, this language provides that a creator can sell sequel rights to a third party (subject to the holdback and first negotiation/matching right), but not rights to any characters that appear in the original work. So, to illustrate, the author of Bridget Jones could sell the screen rights to the second Bridget Jones book, but would not be permitted to grant rights to the character Bridget Jones (feel free to replace “Bridget Jones” with “Harry Potter,” “Harry Bosch,” “Frodo” or any other character of your choosing).

Suffice to say, this creates instant character exclusivity and in many instances makes the development of a sequel by a new buyer unworkable.

On the subject of “creator sequels,” it is also worth mentioning that contractual standards that were very simple when formulated to address the acquisition of discrete works such as novels or plays may be much less elegant in the modern world. For example, it may be difficult to discern the line between the “original property” and a “sequel” when you have an ongoing comic book series with multiple spinoffs. How about a true crime podcast anthology that presents multiple “seasons” focused on different crimes, under one united brand? Or what about a video game where updates are presented via a series of continuous downloadable updates, as opposed to individual and clearly separate releases at brick-and-mortar retailers?

These are issues that we are thinking about and addressing on a daily basis and should evidence why it is important that rightsholders and purchasers alike engage experienced rights counsel!

“Studio Created” Elements

Another provision commonly found in rights purchase agreements reads substantially as follows:

“The Reserved Rights do not include, and Owner will have no right to exploit or use, any new or changed element created by or for Purchaser and/or any new characters, new characterizations and other new elements from any production produced by Purchaser.”

Think of this as the “Daryl Dixon” clause. When AMC optioned and developed “The Walking Dead” comic books for television, they created Daryl as a new character. Daryl promptly went on to become one of the most popular characters in the series.

Because of the clause above, the comic book writer and publisher were not permitted to use Daryl in the source material – or in connection with any other reserved rights (such as video games and merchandising based on the comic book, as opposed to the TV series).

Historically, there were good reasons for this clause. It does not make sense for the author to be unjustly enriched by the studio’s creativity and investment, and the inclusion of a new character back in the original source material could trigger additional guild or contractual obligations (in essence, putting the purchaser on the hook for exploitation that it doesn’t control).

However, we are finally moving towards a paradigm where characters move fluidly across media and different forms of exploitation – where new movies are promoted in Fortnite, and where Freddy Krueger, the Demogorgon, and Michael Myers can all appear as killers in Dead by Daylight. In gaming in particular, there may be a compelling reason for a game publisher to be able to use a character in their games who initially appeared in a television series. Moreover, the expectation of audiences is increasingly that there will be some level of coordination and consistency across media, and so it may be necessary to reexamine the necessity of this clause in very specific circumstances.

Shared Universes

The concept of character exclusivity becomes particularly complicated in the instance of a “shared universe” – a vast sprawling story world that may encompass dozens of separate narratives that could be tied together by relatively obscure or minimal narrative threads. Think Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere or, of course, the Marvel Universe.

For a shared story universe, it is possible, or even likely, that different characters or story elements will be controlled by different rightsholders. This concept has become familiar to audiences due to the X-Men and Avengers living (up to now) in completely separate story universes – or via the high profile and very public negotiations that were necessary to bring Spider-Man to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Absent special arrangement, characters are “stuck” in one universe and cannot “cross over” – even if they did so routinely in the source material. This may lead to audience confusion and frustration.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and in addition to the aforementioned Spider-Man example, two characters were “shared” by Fox and Disney pre-merger – Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver (who appeared in the X-Men franchise starting with Days of Future Past, and in the MCU starting with Avengers: The Age of Ultron (after a brief post-credits appearance in Winter Soldier). However, the two iterations of the characters were played by different actors and, there were purportedly very specific contractual stipulations on how they could be characterized in each universe.

While the concept of a “shared universe” applies mostly to superhero and fantasy worlds, there are still potential repercussions for creators in other genres. For example, an author who writes crossovers between two book series (as Michael Connolly has done with the Bosch and Lincoln Lawyer books), or includes an Easter egg type cameo in their romance novel with a character from another book may be inadvertently creating rights and contractual issues that must be carefully addressed (and may be potentially headache inducing). Of course, the most successful US author of all – Stephen King – does this routinely. But creators must be careful because it is unlikely that they have the leverage that King does over his intellectual property!

“A Secret Love,” from CDAS client Blumhouse, Rated 100% on Rotten Tomatoes

Blumhouse’s bittersweet documentary “A Secret Love” premiered today on Netflix to rave reviews. Simon Pulman represented Blumhouse in its deal with the filmmakers, Briana Hill was involved in the film’s financing, and Calvin Mohammadi and Simon represented Blumhouse in its deal with Netflix. Watch the trailer here.

CDAS IP Group and Partner Nancy Wolff Recognized in Chambers USA 2020


The highly regarded “Guide to the Top Lawyers and Law Firms” described CDAS as a “highly skilled boutique offering excellent capabilities handling trademark and copyright infringement cases, as well as substantial portfolio management matters. [CDAS] exhibits expertise acting for market-leading entertainment, media and digital platform clients.” In addition to recognizing the firm for Intellectual Property: Trademark, Copyright & Trade Secrets (New York), Nancy Wolff was also recognized as “a leading attorney in IP issues relating to digital media, counseling clients in a broad range of matters including disputes and licensing.”


“Wendy” Now Available on Most Digital and MPVD Providers

This beautiful reimagining of J. M. Barrie’s beloved characters, produced by Andrea Cannistraci’s client Paul Mezey and for which Andrea provided production legal services, is widely available as of today. Watch the trailer here.

Congratulations to filmmaker Kristine Stolakis whose documentary “Pray Away” received an excellent Tribeca Film Festival review. Simon Pulman and Calvin Mohammadi represented Blumhouse in its deal to finance the project.

Pray Away exposes the damage caused by the religious right’s so-called reparative therapy programs that claim to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity as told in personal stories of defectors from these programs. Read the review here.

Andrea Cannistraci Negotiated with HabeshaviewTV for “Enchained” to be the First Feature Film on the New Streaming Platform

Enchained, which airs beginning April 18,2020, premiered in Ethiopia in 2019 to critical and popular acclaim. Advisor to the International Emerging Film Talent Association (IEFTA), Andrea represented the film and filmmaker Moges Tafesse in this deal. See the trailer here.

1 2 3 6