‘Crash’ Principals Still Await Payments for Their Work

The New York Times

LOS ANGELES, July 24 — When a movie costs $7.5 million to make and takes in $180 million around the world, it seems logical to think that the people who created the film would have become very rich.

With “Crash,” this year’s Oscar winner for best picture and last year’s sleeper hit at the box office, that has not been the case.

The movie’s co-writer and director, Paul Haggis, has so far made less than $300,000 on the film, a pittance by Hollywood standards. The eight principal actors in “Crash,” including Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon and Don Cheadle, have been expecting large checks for months, after deferring their usual fees in exchange for a percentage of the film’s profits. Recently, their representatives say, they each received checks for $19,000.

The wheels of Hollywood’s money machine always turn too slowly for profit participants, players who agree to take a slice of a film’s revenues in lieu of large salaries up front.

But the pace of payments on “Crash” has especially disappointed those who deferred and reduced their salaries in 2004 to get the movie made.

The pressure has led Lionsgate, the domestic distributor of “Crash,” to try to broker a deal to advance payments to Mr. Cheadle and Mr. Haggis, in the interest of maintaining good relations.

That deal has so far faltered and is contributing to tensions between the cast, producers, writers and director of the film on one side, and Bob Yari, the producer and financier in charge of disbursing payments, on the other. In particular, representatives for Mr. Cheadle, a producer and leading actor on the film; Mr. Dillon; Mr. Haggis; and his co-writer Bobby Moresco have been pressing for explanations as to why payments are so slow in coming.

“We haven’t audited, so we can’t tell if it’s right or wrong,” said Peter Dekom, the lawyer for Mr. Haggis and Mark Harris, another producer, who said he had recently hired an accountant to conduct an audit. “But it’s always a big deal when you go out in the world, and you look at the video units sold, the $55 million of domestic box office, the fact that the movie’s doing well overseas, and then you look at the accounting statements, and it’s Hollywood accounting.”

Mr. Yari, a relative newcomer to Hollywood — “Crash” was his first major hit — said he was aware of the dissatisfaction, but that he was completely up to date on payments.

“They have been correctly paid,” he said in a recent interview. “They will be paid more. This is the process. We’ve done everything aboveboard. If we wanted to not pay people and have them sue us, we wouldn’t pay them at all.”

Mr. Yari said that monies collected from Lionsgate went into a fund before being disbursed, further delaying payment to profit participants, and that little money had come in from foreign distributors, though the film long ago ended most of its theatrical runs. He also said that Lionsgate, which has so far paid him slightly more than $10 million, owes him another $10 million. A Lionsgate executive said that a large sum was expected in the fall when the studio’s pay-television deal with Showtime yields revenues.

The rising tension is the latest knot in a tangle of strained relations over “Crash,” a movie about racial tension in the traffic-clogged sprawl of Los Angeles. Mr. Yari has sued two of his co-producers, Cathy Schulman and Tom Nunan, for breach of contract, while they have countersued for fraud and a similar breach. A lawyer for Ms. Schulman said she and Mr. Nunan have been paid no producer fees as yet.

“We certainly haven’t been paid on ‘Crash,’ we haven’t even seen a statement, and you’d think we’d see that,” said Melvin Avanzado, Ms. Schulman’s lawyer. “Everyone is chomping at the bit because the movie’s a success.”

A lawsuit filed by Mr. Yari against the Producers Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences over their procedures for assigning producing credits was recently dismissed, though Mr. Yari has said that he intends to pursue the case further.

Mr. Yari is also in an accounting dispute with one of two central financiers of “Crash,” DEJ Productions, which is now owned by First Look Studios.

“We’ve amicably exchanged statements, and we believe we need to go to an audit,” said Henry Winterstern, the chief executive of First Look. He said that Mr. Yari owed him money from an earlier movie, “Matador.” Mr. Yari said he knew that DEJ was “unhappy.”

In Hollywood it is not unusual for squabbles to erupt over dividing the spoils when a small film becomes a very big hit. But part of what is creating bruised feelings with “Crash” is the sense among the starring cast members that their initial sacrifice has not been acknowledged with a gesture, whatever the precise state of collection accounts.

“You’d think that for a movie that won best picture, what you would do is write the actors a check against their profits, or you give them a car, or something,” said a representative for one of the leading actors, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his client had barred him from speaking on the record. “That would be the classy thing to do.” He added: “The money is dribbling in. It’s almost offensive how little money it is.”

The deal to advance money to Mr. Haggis and others has stalled because Mr. Yari declined to give a letter agreeing that payments be directed to the creative talent, according to a Lionsgate executive. Mr. Yari said he did not know Lionsgate required such a letter.

Documents show, and the principals’ representatives say, that so far none of the profit participants has received more than a low six-figure sum for their work. Moreover, Mr. Haggis and Mr. Moresco were both in dire financial straits when they made the movie in 2004, but deferred their salaries — about $94,000 and $47,000, respectively — to gain approval to move ahead on the film. The deferred salaries were paid in the middle of 2005, after the film broke even, and the money made its way through the accounting system.

But by the time the Academy Awards rolled around in early March, Mr. Moresco and his wife, Barbara, for example, were still short of cash, living in a rented house in Burbank, Calif. Mr. Moresco and Mr. Haggis both declined to comment for this article.

“Crash” has taken in $55 million at the domestic box office and $39 million in foreign box office sales. It has sold 5 million units — about $85 million worth — of DVD’s.

Mr. Yari raised a large part of the production budget from a German tax fund, the rest from banks and with guarantees for video distribution from DEJ. After seeing the movie at the Toronto International Film Festival in fall 2004, Lionsgate bought all domestic distribution rights for $3.3 million, with premiums added should “Crash” become a hit.

The principal players who deferred and reduced their salaries are due from 2 to 4 percent of Mr. Yari’s profit pool, according to people familiar with the deal. The percentages are tied to tiered benchmarks of the film’s revenues.

Mr. Yari said that payments had been slowed by the fact that the German tax fund had to approve them, which had added months to the process.

But Mr. Dekom, the lawyer for Mr. Haggis, said he believed that Mr. Yari had more money than had been paid out. “To the extent that Bob Yari is sitting on cash and not disbursing it to people who put their hearts and souls into the movie, that would be wrong,” he said. “At the very least they should accelerate payment.”


The following article appeared in the May 20, 2005 issue of Entertainment Weekly Magazine


'Crash' draws crowds as box office stumbles

By Nicole Sperling
The Hollywood Reporter

"Crash," a film about race relations in Los Angeles with a cast including Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock and Matt Dillon, did not seem the obvious choice for an early summer success story.

But with the box office experiencing a slump this year, Lions Gate Films' pickup from the Toronto International Film Festival has become one of the season's few bright spots.

Its success can be credited to a bold release plan, an emotional marketing campaign and an aggressive screening program. For "Crash" has been able to do what few movies accomplish nowadays: It has attracted four very distinct demographic groups -- college students, upscale adult audiences, the urban market and females.

The result has been ticket sales of $36 million in just four weeks. The film could gross as much as $50 million -- a number that might exceed the final domestic grosses of the expected summer hits it opened against: 20th Century Fox's "Kingdom of Heaven" and Warner Bros. Pictures' "House of Wax."

And it hit that mark in an unconventional manner for a specialty film: by opening wide in the early summer instead of taking the more traditional route of opening in New York and Los Angeles in the fall, gaining traction through word-of-mouth and expanding to a critical mass just in time for Academy Awards consideration.

"Fall is a season when a lot of highbrow quasi-commercial pictures get released," Lions Gate Releasing president Tom Ortenberg said. "We didn't feel the need to wait that long and then compete in a crowded marketplace."

Lions Gate picked up the picture for $3.3 million in the fall and soon after pursued a wide release plan.

"We had great actors, a very promotable filmmaker and a lot of national press. We didn't want to waste it on a few city openings," said Ortenberg.

The film was perfectly timed in that writer director Paul Haggis was coming off his Oscar-nominated screenplay for "Million Dollar Baby," and Cheadle was fresh off his Oscar-nominated role in "Hotel Rwanda."

In retrospect, a platform release actually could have killed Haggis' directorial debut. While the film received mostly positive reviews around the country when it opened May 6 on 1,864 screens, film critics at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times issued scathing reviews.

"There was a lot of talk about a fall release in New York and Los Angeles, but there would be no conversations right now (about 'Crash') if we had done that," said John Hegeman, president of marketing at Lions Gate. "Our only bad reviews were in the New York Times and the L.A. Times."

Instead of betting on big-city reviews, Lions Gate instead relied on early data that showed the movie to have strong playability across different demos in addition to high marketability to those same groups. Although Ortenberg said the company spent less than $20 million to market the film, Hegeman added that the campaign went much deeper into each demographic than is usual. With four specific targeted audiences, the company bought more TV ads than it ever had before and spent more money than it usually does.

The other component to Lions Gate's marketing plans was a widespread screening program, targeting racial groups nationwide, both to get early feedback and also to spread the word about the film. Hegeman said Haggis, Cheadle and Dillon hosted screenings around the country to offer a "platform for people to talk." The film also received endorsements from such community leaders as Los Angeles Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa, the Rev. Al Sharpton and NAACP leaders.


The following article appeared in the May 16, 2005 issue of Jet Magazine


Taking a 'Crash' Course in Prejudice

By Hanh Nguyen

LOS ANGELES (Zap2it.com) - In the song "Walkin' in LA," new wave group Missing Persons observes that "nobody walks in LA." Writer-director Paul Haggis exploits this habit in "Crash," an ensemble drama in which car-centric Angelenos -- accustomed to avoiding human contact while safely ensconced behind the wheel -- are forced to confront their preconceptions about each other.

Although the City of Angels doesn't own the patent on prejudice, "Crash" stars Matt Dillon and Thandie Newton agree that because of its commuter culture, Los Angeles is suited to the intolerance depicted in the film, which opens in limited release on Friday, May 6.

"It makes particular sense for LA," says Dillon, who plays the racist LAPD Officer Ryan. "The fact the people are isolated from each other, it breeds fear and ignorance. People in [New York] are forced to deal with each other regularly, so it makes it much more difficult for people to make these sweeping assumptions about each other."

There's a potential for much more extreme behavior because of that segregated geography of the place," adds Newton.

In the film, she plays Christine, the wife of TV show director Cameron (Terrence Howard). One night, as the couple is driving home, they're pulled over by Officer Ryan and his partner Officer Hansen (Ryan Phillippe). The situation becomes heated to the point that both Cameron and Hansen can only watch helplessly as Ryan takes liberties with Christine.

The tense scene took an emotional toll on the actors, those playing victims and aggressors alike. "For that moment it all felt real. I was trying the hardest not to cry," reveals Howard. "I was trying not to be afraid. And I caught myself in a moment trembling. I couldn't wait till they said 'Cut.'

"I remember Matt afterwards at the end of the night apologizing to me -- and it was sincere -- for what he had to do. And he was so concerned with Thandie. He was trying to be real with it, and ... I saw him struggling with being able to go there."

Howard admits that he's had problems trusting law enforcers based on an incident in which his grandfather was shot 11 times in the back by police in Buffalo, New York. "So I've always had a natural fear of the police -- of the abuse of their power -- not of their individual position," he says. "I was always very careful with how I dealt with them as a result of this information being passed on to me."

Dillon sympathizes: "I had my own prejudices about the LAPD -- not like active resentment -- but kind of this fear that when I pull up next to a black and white LA cop that I'm going to get pulled over. It's just a free-floating anxiety that I feel."

Dillon therefore challenged his own assumptions about LA's finest during his research into his character. He questioned the LAPD about how a cop like Officer Ryan would do his policing and how prevalent racism was in the force.

"They were very helpful, very open and honest about the fact that there are cops like that. There have been in the past. There probably still are," he says, "but it's not everybody. Most of these people are just like you and me, and they're not disciplinary robots."

Despite the city's reputation and problems, Phillippe and co-star Don Cheadle enjoy living in Los Angeles. Phillippe touts the creative environment, while Cheadle enthuses about the fresh produce. Howard, who lives in Philadelphia, just can't seem to embrace the city's uniform weather patterns.

"Something that LA is missing is the seasons," says Howard. "When you meet someone in LA and you see them two, three years later, you don't remember where you met them, because you don't have the landmarks. It loses cohesion with reality."

Phillippe, an avid surfer, points out, "But there's something great about riding waves in January."


The following movie review appeared in the April 2005 issue of Elle Magazine