Remember the great Phony Critic Caper of 2001? The one where the marketing team at Sony Pictures decided to create its own ersatz movie reviewer, "David Manning" of the Ridgefield Press, to lard on false praise for fetid turkeys such as Rob Schneider's "The Animal"?
Last month, a widely published Associated Press story reported that Sony had agreed to settle a $1.5 million class-action lawsuit by disgruntled moviegoers, who could recoup $5 for each ticket they purchased for any of the films faux-blurbed by the nonexistent Manning. News of the settlement created a stir in cyberspace and the entertainment press, with visions of tens of thousands of chagrined rubes lining up around the studio with their palms outstretched. Like, right on! Multiplexers unite!
We did some follow-up and learned that Sony paid out $5,085 -- total -- to 170 real, honest-to-goodness ticket buyers.
The rest of the cash? Brace yourself, Virginia: According to court papers, the attorneys for the plaintiffs got $458,909. Sony paid an additional $250,000 for administrative fees and costs associated with alerting moviegoers to the settlement and processing the claims -- all 170 of them. Not a bad payday.
The settlement, in which Sony conceded no wrongdoing, stipulated that any money left over from the $500,000 the studio set aside for claims would go to charity. And indeed it did, with $494,915 donated to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and the Women's Care Cottage in Los Angeles.
Before settling, Sony first went before a California appeals court and argued that the phony blurbs were free speech safeguarded by the First Amendment.
A three-judge panel of the Second Appellate Division said, essentially, naaah: "Under Sony's absolutist approach, every film advertisement, no matter how false, would be outside the scope of consumer protection laws. We reject that position."
But not without a dissenting opinion by Justice Reuben A. Ortega that makes for great reading: "This is the most frivolous case with which I have ever had to deal."
If the plaintiffs prevail, the justice opined, "no longer will people be seen lurching like mindless zombies toward the movie theater, compelled by a puff piece." Presciently, he continues, "We should be occupying ourselves with resolving legitimate disputes instead of laughable cases designed not to gain anything for the plaintiffs but rather to generate fees for the only true beneficiaries of this disgrace, the attorneys."
Norman Blumenthal, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, defended his case in an interview, saying his team did advertise in USA Today and Business Wire seeking claims from any and all who had seen "The Animal," "Vertical Limit," "A Knight's Tale," "Hollow Man," and "The Patriot" (the last was blurbed not by "David Manning" but by members of the Sony team themselves). While Blumenthal agreed the number of actual claimants seemed small, the point was to spank Sony so that it would stop the practice.
But Sony had already fessed up, disciplined several employees and fired "Manning," after a Newsweek scoop in May 2001 busted them. As for the low number of actual ticket buyers seeking redress, news of the settlement went out on the news wires a month after the deadline to sign up as a claimant had passed.
And so the cogs of justice clank and spin. The feisty Ortega turned out to be wrong when he wrote that plaintiffs had no chance of succeeding. Nobody really believes film blurbs, Ortega wrote. "Contrary to the majority opinion's implications, moviegoers are not such morons."