Do Your Actors Own Your Film?
Novice actors are generally thought to have very little power in Hollywood. Many wait tables and drive taxis while awaiting their big break. Even top stars usually have little control over their films, compared to producers, directors and the studios that finance and distribute them. However, all that may change as a result of a recent court decision.
In a case that may have far-reaching implications for the movie industry, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that an actress had established a likelihood of success in her claim of copyright infringement, on the basis she had an independent interest in a film by virtue of her performance in it, without signing any document granting rights to the producer.
Cindy Lee Garcia had agreed to perform a minor role in an independent film with the working title “Desert Warrior.” She thought she was playing a character in an Arabian adventure story and worked for three days and received $500 dollars for her performance. However, Garcia’s scene was never used in the film she thought she was appearing in. Instead a five-second clip was used in a controversial anti-Islamic 13-minute video trailer titled the “Innocence of Muslims.” Her performance was partially dubbed so that her character appeared to be asking, “Is your Mohammed a child molester?”
Not surprisingly this film caused outrage in the Muslim world, with protests and violence injuring hundreds and killing more than 50 persons. One Egyptian cleric issued a fatwa, calling for the killing of all those involved with the movie, and Garcia received numerous death threats. She was forced to take extensive security precautions when traveling and relocated her home and business as a precaution. This is the film that sparked international media attention when the Obama administration mentioned it as possible cause for the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
The case is precedent setting because it acknowledges that an actor can have a separate copyright interest in a film they are hired to perform in. Under this rationale, if a producer has not secured the rights to their actors’ performances, a single actor could conceivably halt distribution of a blockbuster film causing enormous losses to its owners.