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Saturday
Sep212013

CUTTING THE CARDS

Typically, disgruntled writers clog up the courts with claims that producers or other writers misappropriated their stories or ideas. Most of these lawsuits have a whiff of unbelievability about them. If they are not dismissed outright, the studios vigorously defend against them.

Earlier this week, however, a writer named Rob Thomas (not the creator of Veronica Mars) filed a juicy lawsuit for breach of oral contract that bucks the trend.

In a Sept. 16 filing in Los Angeles Superior Court, Thomas claims that his (presumably now former) best friend Skip Woods (credited as writer on A Good Day to Die Hard, The A-Team, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine) hired him as a secret writing partner for a 15 percent cut of residuals, only to take most of the money for himself.

If Thomas is to be believed, Woods made millions of dollars and built a 15-year career in Hollywood by claiming credit for the work of his silent partner. Woods, reluctant to “destroy his brand,” refused to share credit with his best friend, according to the 20-page complaint.

Thomas claims he edited and polished Woods earlier screenplays, including 2001's Swordfish, before the pair reversed roles after Woods suffered a bout of writer's block.

Under this arrangement, Thomas says he wrote outlines and drafts, responded to studio notes using Woods' email account, and rewrote and emailed script pages to Woods while he worked as an on-set writer on the third Die Hard sequel, Live Free or Die Hard.

If proved true, one of Thomas' more startling claims may land Woods in hot water with the Writers Guild of America, the labor union for film and television writers.

Woods allegedly submitted Thomas' work so the union could arbitrate a dispute over credit for X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Screenwriter David Benioff (now showrunner of HBO series Game of Thrones), wanted sole credit but the union awarded Woods a co-writing credit. According to Thomas, his partner did not write any of the pages submitted for arbitration.

Why was Thomas willing to sit back and let his so-called friend supposedly take credit for his writing? Why did he work for 15 years on some of Hollywood's biggest summer blockbusters without consulting a lawyer or insisting on a written contract?

Movie producer Samuel Goldwyn famously said: "An oral contract isn't worth the paper it's written on." Breach of oral contract claims aren't always doomed to failure. But good luck proving you're owed hundreds of thousands of dollars without a factual record to support your claims.

It's possible that Thomas is overplaying his contribution to Woods' work. But even if you doubt its merits, the lawsuit demonstrates the importance of putting things in writing. Even if you're working with your best friend.

In Thomas' case, Richard Nixon's advice is perhaps more fitting than Goldwyn's: "Trust everyone, but cut the cards."