LOS ANGELES, OCT. 17 -- A Los Angeles County Superior Court has held the door open to an argument that challenges the fairness of the typical Hollywood contract, a move that potentially threatens the profits of the major motion picture studios.

At issue in the hearing late this afternoon before Judge Harvey A. Schneider was whether the contract that columnist Art Buchwald signed with Paramount Pictures for an idea that eventually became "Coming to America" is so unfair that its provision for studio profits should be ignored. Although the Eddie Murphy movie was a huge hit, garnering about $350 million worldwide, Paramount has shown that under the profit terms of Buchwald's contract it still is some $18 million in the hole.

This is in large part because of Paramount's large distribution and overhead charges, similar to those charged by all the major movie studios. Earlier in the trial, which began last year, Paramount's lawyers argued that these fees are justified because of the risks of the movie business. "Winners must pay for losers," one Paramount lawyer said.

But Buchwald's attorneys have argued that the movie business is not as risky as the studios claim, and therefore the contract Buchwald signed -- a standard contract in the movie business -- is "unconscionable."

It is a daring argument, one that Paramount has derided as far-fetched and even desperate.

But today, Schneider agreed at least to entertain the challenge -- which could mean that he will order Paramount to open its internal financial records to the court. "Unconscionability pends on an allocation of risks," he said. "I can't make a decision without knowing Paramount's profits."

To help him analyze Paramount's risk, Schneider appointed a special master, Franklin Johnson, a managing partner at the Price Waterhouse accounting firm.

The next step will be for Johnson to meet with Schneider and attorneys for both sides to determine exactly what information he will need for his risk assessment. Schneider has complained before about the information Paramount has given him, on one occasion threatening to open its books. Today he struck a more conciliatory tone, saying he would defer to Johnson's judgment. "I may adopt the better part of both of your positions," he told the attorneys, "to get sufficient information without being unnecessarily inquisitive."

After the hearing, Paramount put the best face on the setback. "If {Schneider} wants us to prove the motion picture business is a risky business, all we have to do is bring in Mr. {Dino} De Laurentiis or Mr. {Jerry} Weintraub," Paramount attorney Charles Diamond said. Both producers recently went bankrupt.

Buchwald's attorney, Pierce O'Donnell, called Schneider's tentative rulings "a very significant step. The judge has said, 'I want my own expert, I don't believe what Paramount is telling me.' "

But in a quiet moment O'Donnell admitted he started the day in a very different mood. "I was up at 3 a.m.," he said. "We were sweating bullets."