Is Paris Hilton’s $160,000 Bill for Blowing Off Publicity Services Her Best Damages Award Forever?

October 11, 2010Article
Law Law Land Blog

Let’s play a little game:  think of the best movie you saw in 2006, but don’t say it out loud (and I hope you don’t blindly follow those plebeians at the Academy).  Now let me guess…(cue think music)…I’ve got it!  It was National Lampoon’s Pledge This!, starring Paris Hilton, right?

Wait, what did you say?  You didn’t see that movie?  Impossible.

How could you resist this comedic gem which features Paris as the rich and sexy leader of the Gamma Gammas at South Beach University?  Come on, they were voted America’s hottest sorority by FHM magazine, and the misadventures that flow from winning that fictional title are undeniably scintillating.

And surely you must have been aching for more Paris after her star turns in Bottoms Up and House of Wax (the equally unforgettable The Hottie & the Nottie came later, of course).  Unless…aha!  I think I know what the problem was — Paris just didn’t do enough to promote the film.  If only she would have hit the press circuit a little harder, there would have been a wildly successful theatrical release, and you would have ran out and dropped $19.99 for your own personal copy.

Although the above scenario may sound silly, it pretty much sums up the basis of the lawsuit brought against Hilton by the film’s investors, the troubled Worldwide Entertainment Group.  Worldwide sued Hilton in the Southern District of Florida to recover the entire $8.3 million cost of the picture for Hilton’s alleged failure to fulfill her contractual obligation to do “reasonable promotion and publicity” for the film.  The lawsuit essentially blames the film’s failure on Hilton’s alleged refusal to agree to several foreign interviews and publicity requests (not mentioned in complaint:  insipid story, terrible production, god-awful writing, worse acting, etc.), claiming that Worldwide relied on Hilton’s future promotion of the film when it spent $8.3 million.  Thankfully for actors and lovers of legal sanity alike, the Court rejected Worldwide’s theory as “entirely speculative and unsupported by the facts.”  But, the Court did give Worldwide the opportunity to prove which portion of Hilton’s $935,000 producer’s fee was paid in consideration for Hilton’s promotion of the film’s DVD release, and last month, preliminarily valued that amount at $160,000.

While $160,000 is a mere fraction of Hilton’s $1 million total paycheck for the movie (not to mention the $8.3 million originally sought by Worldwide) and is a pretty clear win for Hilton, it seems no less speculative and raises more questions than it answers.  Generally, studio agreements contain a standard clause requiring talent to perform reasonable promotion and publicity for the picture, but these clauses provide little guidance as to how an actor may or may not actually satisfy those obligations.  For example, what is a “reasonable” promotion or publicity request?  How many publicity events must an actor do?  Does an actor cause more damage if he turns down Letterman than a foreign magazine interview?  What if he agrees to go on Letterman and then appears to be completely freaking insane?  It seems virtually impossible for any court to quantify the value of an actor’s failure to perform any specific interview or promotional event.  Yet here, the Court valued Hilton’s failure to perform several foreign interviews at the totally intuitive value of 17.11% of her producer’s fee.  Naturally.

On balance, the results seem to be driven less by Hilton’s failure to give a specific interview or two, and more by a desire to compensate Worldwide for Hilton’s seemingly disassociating herself from the film altogether (and, as Worldwide claimed, acting like a spoiled brat — the Court even dropped a footnote about Hilton’s “busy” schedule, including the fact that it takes 3 hours to do her hair).

But as the Court recognized, even the greatest actors sometimes deliver flops, and the success of any given film involves the intersection of many different factors, making it a serious challenge for courts to measure in dollars the value of any specific missed press events.  The implications of this ruling on future box office bombs with A-list budgets, A-list talent, and A-list salaries remains to be seen.  And while Paris may have gotten off easy, the willingness of a production company to go after its talent on this basis — and the willingness of a court to rule in the company’s favor at all — is likely to make other actors think twice before declining an interview request from a studio’s marketing office.

As for Pledge This!, Worldwide might have done better if the movie was even half as entertaining as Hilton’s trial testimony.  At one point, after hearing about the title of Hilton’s then-latest reality show (“My New BFF”), Judge Federico Moreno asked Hilton what “BFF” stood for (leaving one to wonder what world he has been living in).  Hilton explained, leading Moreno to remark, “This will be my best case forever.”  To which Hilton promptly responded, “You’re my best judge forever.”  (Here’s hoping that little $160,000 damages award doesn’t come between them.)

OMG, Paris!  You get my vote for Best Testimony Forever!  <3 <3 <3