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Stolen 'Flowers'?

Writer Reed Martin believes the similarities between his screenplay and Jim Jarmusch's are more than coincidental

By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / June 28, 2006

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Editor's note: After a jury verdict in favor of Jim Jarmusch, US District Court Judge Ronald S. W. Lew dismissed Reed Martin's lawsuit on Oct. 10, 2007.

CAMBRIDGE -- Director Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers" came out last summer and made many lists of the year's best movies. A Grand Prix winner at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, the offbeat comedy stars Bill Murray as an aging Don Juan who revisits a string of former girlfriends, trying to puzzle out why his life seems so unfulfilled.

But when Reed Martin saw "Broken Flowers," he wasn't laughing or applauding. Martin, a freelance journalist and adjunct professor of film marketing at New York University, left the theater with a knot in his stomach.

Virtually all the film's characters, scenes, and sequencing were his creation, or slight variations thereof, Martin concluded, from the ex-girlfriend who talks to cats to the pink envelope that propels Murray's odyssey. There were differences, to be sure, but there were also more than enough similarities to convince Martin that he'd been wronged.

"I was heartbroken, and terrified," says Martin, sitting in a Harvard Square cafe. "Nobody in that audience would ever know how much I slaved over that script."

It was the "perfect crime," adds Martin -- who says he spent 10 years polishing and marketing his screenplay -- because complaining about it would only invite trouble. "Who would believe," Martin says, "that someone like Jarmusch, an icon of indie-film integrity, would rip off a struggling screenwriter like me?"

The more Jarmusch bragged about "Broken Flowers," however, the more Martin's anguish gave way to anger. Jarmusch claimed he'd written the script in two to three weeks, yet admitted to one interviewer that its premise was "pretty foreign to me." In a burst of candor, the filmmaker wrote in a column for MovieMaker magazine , "Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration . . . And don't bother concealing your thievery -- celebrate it if you feel like it."

What Martin felt like doing was suing for copyright infringement. Not just Jarmusch, either, but the studios that co financed and distributed the film and the agent to whom Martin had entrusted his script.

Why not? Martin had registered multiple versions of his screenplay. Between 1996 and 2004, he registered 12 versions -- under the title "Two Weeks Off" and, later, "Heart Copy " -- with the US Copyright Office. He also registered it three times with the Writers Guild of America, between 1998 and 2004. He felt he had ample proof, in the form of e-mails and FedEx receipts, that his work had been received, read, and admired by people in the industry, some with known ties to Jarmusch.

Martin then bumped into another cold reality about the film business. His case was hardly unique, or even all that unusual. When pressed, claims like his were usually squashed by high-powered studio lawyers -- or quietly settled and sealed by both parties. Furthermore, pursuing legal action could kill his chances of ever working in the movies. And bankrupt him in the process.

"No one believed the fairy tale more than I did," says Martin glumly. ``There's the Quentin Tarantino fantasy, and then there's the Reed Martin reality. I followed the dream to the bottom of the ocean."

Martin's dream might have rested there, too, one more rusting hulk of a Hollywood disaster story that few would ever hear about, if not for a plot point worthy of a legal thriller.

Besides being a fledgling screenwriter, Martin is an expert researcher. One of his current employers is Harvard Business School, where legal precedents are highly prized commodities. He soon tracked down John Marder , a Los Angeles attorney specializing in entertainment copyright and contract law. Martin had been warned by other lawyers that filing a lawsuit would be an expensive, if not futile, proposition. Marder strongly believed otherwise. After reviewing Martin's case, Marder says, he was stunned by how blatant the theft appeared to be.

Marder says his firm considers 200 to 300 potential cases of copyright infringement a year and accepts only one or two. "This case has everything," he says by phone from Los Angeles. "The two legal legs are access and similarity. Typically, the stronger the access, the less you need to prove similarity. But in Reed's case, both were ramped up to the top."

Taking no up front fee, as other lawyers had demanded from Martin, Marder filed suit this March in US District Court. He expects to depose key figures in the case -- including Jarmusch, Murray, and Glenn Rigberg , Martin's former agent -- in the next three to four months. (In addition to Jarmusch and Rigberg, the suit names Vivendi Universal Entertainment and Focus Features as defendants.) The suit seeks $40 million in damages, plus legal fees.

Meanwhile, Grosso v. Miramax, another Marder case, stemming from a claim against the 1999 film "Rounders," goes to trial next month. Industry players are watching it closely, for at its core is a potentially landscape - changing concept known as "implied contract." In essence, this means that if a writer pitches an idea or submits a script to a studio or network and that idea or script gets used, the writer must be compensated. Unfortunately, says Marder, whose firm won a landmark case 20 years ago against ABC and "America's Funniest Home Videos," Hollywood has not always done business that way, using the limits written into federal copyright law to exploit writers like Martin.

"In a lot of circumstances, writers are treated fairly because relationships need to be protected," says Marder. "But it's an arbitrary world. They don't have to treat you fairly. And it gets worse as you go down the film production food chain."

In supporting Miramax against writer Jeff Grosso's claim, other studios argued for their right to take ideas without paying for them, notes Marder. "So the question isn't why would they do that?" he says. "It's why wouldn't they? And if someone like Reed isn't protected, who took all the proper steps, imagine what happens to someone more naive than he is?"

If Martin, 36, could have peered into the future 10 years ago and seen his name attached to the phrase ``Hollywood suit," he might have assumed it meant studio executive, not plaintiff in a contentious copyright case.

After graduating from Georgetown, Martin worked for CNN in Atlanta before earning degrees in journalism and business from Columbia University. In 1995 a paper he wrote on marketing French films won an award from the French government. That got him a trip to Cannes, where he met Rigberg, a former William Morris agent, through a mutual friend. It also led to a management trainee job with 20th Century Fox Film in Los Angeles, Martin's first in-depth exposure to the movie business.

Relocating to New York in 1998, he worked in film marketing and immersed himself in the indie film scene, hoping to break into its creative side. It was his own frustrations with long-term relationships, says Martin, that had inspired him a couple of years before to begin a script about a lonely workaholic who mines his past for clues to his angst-ridden present.

"This was the idea I really loved," says Martin, who peppers his conversations with references to memorable movie plots and favorite scenes. "I'd always chosen work over relationships and thought, why not have a protagonist whose girlfriend just walked out on him and is trying to figure out why?"

While working on his script, Martin wrote for publications such as USA Today and Filmmaker Magazine and taught courses at both Columbia and NYU. In 2003, according to Martin, he sent a copy of the screenplay to Rigberg, who agreed to shop it around to various studios, production companies, and actors with whom he had working relationships.

Rigberg's circle of clients and contacts could become a key point in proving Martin's claim should it get to court. One client is actress Julie Delpy , later cast in "Broken Flowers." Among the script's recipients, according to the lawsuit, were David Linde , copresident of Focus Films, and the agent representing Sharon Stone. (Stone also appears in the film. ) Again according to Martin, he and Rigberg exchanged many e-mails and phone calls over the next few months documenting how much Rigberg and his office colleagues liked Martin's script.

Asked through his attorney to comment on Martin's allegations, Rigberg declined to respond. Copies of the e-mails between Rigberg and Martin were not provided to the Globe.

Sometime in late 2004, says Martin, Rigberg abruptly told him that he could no longer help sell his script. Martin's next inkling of trouble came when a friend who reads scripts for a Hollywood studio said a film ``just like" Martin's was already in production. After learning it was Jarmusch's project, a disappointed Martin figured he'd been victimized by bad luck and sheer coincidence.

"I thought, oh, he must have gotten there first," Martin recalls. "He has such a reputation for integrity, I mean." In the early 1980s, Jarmusch emerged as a major figure in the indie-film world, going on to direct cult hits such as "Stranger Than Paradise," "Dead Man" (starring Johnny Depp ), "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai ," and "Coffee and Cigarettes."

Still, suspicion gnawed at Martin as he tracked Jarmusch's film through website reports. One curiosity was the lack of information about its script and plot. Another was that Delpy, a friend of Jarmusch's, was reportedly costarring along with Stone and Murray. Murray was the same actor Martin had recommended to Rigberg for the lead role in his film.

When reviewers saw "Broken Flowers" at Cannes and raved about its "talking to a cat" scene, Martin was incredulous. Could Jarmusch have independently invented a detail like that? Highly unlikely, he thought.

Sneaking into a screening in Boston last summer, Martin was devastated. It was all he could do to stop from yelling ``thief!" in the darkened theater.

"For him to take credit for all the small stuff, the nuances, upset me even more," Martin says nearly a year later, struggling to keep his composure. "This was my life he was stealing, not just my screenplay."

In a statement e-mailed to the Globe, Jarmusch dismisses Martin's claims as having "absolutely no merit." Before he was accused of theft, writes Jarmusch, "I had never had any contact with him or his work. I'd never even heard of him. I still haven't seen the work he claims I copied. Anyone who is familiar with my films and my writing process will know that this claim is ridiculous."

Martin's suit cites more than a dozen examples of alleged borrowing from his work, plus numerous ``points of access" involving Rigberg and other principals associated with ``Broken Flowers." Shot in the fall of 2004, Jarmusch's film has earned a reported $40 million in theatrical release worldwide. Revenues from DVDs and other sources could add substantially to that total.

Yet Martin says his complaint is not now nor ever was solely about money. Forty million dollars is a big number, he concedes, but it's attached to one small question that looms over everything else.

``How much would it have cost," asks Martin, "to give me a story credit?"

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com. t