Appeals Court Lifts Curtain on Lynyrd Skynryd Biopic

MANHATTAN (CN) – The Second Circuit lifted a ban Wednesday on the release of a biopic that probes the 1977 plane crash that killed the front man and other members of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd.

“Even though the injunction here has allegedly been imposed as a result of private contract rather than government censorship, it nonetheless restrains the viewing of an expressive work prior to its public availability, and courts should always be hesitant to approve such an injunction,” a three-judge panel for the federal appeals court wrote in an unsigned decision.

In blocking the distribution of the film “Street Survivors” last year, U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet found that surviving members and family representatives of the Southern-rock pioneers were entitled to a permanent injunction based on their settlement of a 1988 lawsuit over which Sweet had also presided.

The consent order restricted how the parties to the 1988 lawsuit can use the name Lynyrd Skynyrd and the history of the band, but permits the band’s members to exploit their life stories and portray their experiences with the band in movies.

Judith Van Zant, the widow of frontman Ronnie Van Zant who was killed in the crash, brought the New York lawsuit alongside Gary R. Rossington, the lone original founding member still with the band; Johnny Van Zant, who stepped in as frontman after his brother’s death; Barbara Houston, on behalf of the deceased founding guitarist Allen Collins; and Alicia Rapp and Carinna Gaines Biemiller, as the personal representatives of the estate of Steven Gaines, a guitarist killed in the 1977 crash.

The group had also sought to have the film by the California-based independent record label Cleopatra Records destroyed, but Sweet declined to order such relief.

Reversing his injunction Wednesday, meanwhile, the Second Circuit found the language of consent decree to be precarious and unenforceable because it blocked former Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle from making a movie about Lynyrd Skynyrd’s history, but not a movie about his experiences with the band, including the crash.

The wreckage of a plane in a wooded area near McComb, Miss., on Oct. 20, 1977, where six people were killed, including three members of the music group Lynyrd Skynyrd. A New York federal appeals court says a new Lynyrd Skynyrd film, “Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash,” can be released despite a dispute over the band’s intentions. A lower court judge decided previously that the film violated a “blood oath” made by band members not to exploit the group’s name after the crash. (AP Photo, File)

Pyle, who played with Lynyrd Skynyrd from 1975 to 1991 and survived the 1977 crash, signed a deal with Cleopatra in 2016 that would have given him a 5 percent cut of the film’s profits, along with a co-producer credit. The film’s 108-page script, included as exhibit evidence, begins on the first page with a voiceover from Pyle establishing, “This is my story.”

“That crash is part of the ‘history’ of the band, but it is also an ‘experience’ of Pyle with the band, likely his most important experience,” the 11-page opinion states. “Provisions of a consent decree that both prohibit a movie about such a history and also permit a movie about such an experience are sufficiently inconsistent, or at least insufficiently specific, to support an injunction.”

Earlier the ruling emphasized that Cleopatra was not a party to the consent order, but “the injunction in this case restricts the actions of an entity that was not a party to the contract that is alleged to be the source of the restriction.”

U.S. Circuit Judges Jon Newman, Susan Carney and Peter Hall found “that the terms of the consent order are inconsistent, or at least insufficiently precise, to support an injunction.”

In a separate concurring opinion, Judge Newman noted that the text of the script betrays another problem with the lower court’s injunction.

“Because the plane was carrying members of the band, two of whom were killed, it would have been impossible for Cleopatra to depict this experience of Pyle’s without some references to the band,” Newman wrote (emphasis in original). “The script does not portray the history of the band. It portrays an experience from Pyle’s life, precisely what section 3 of the Consent Order explicitly permits, and, in doing so, it refers to the band, as section 3 also explicitly permits.”

Wednesday’s ruling also vacates an order for Cleopatra pay the plaintiffs more than $600,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs.

Cleopatra was represented by attorney Mandel Bhandari attorney Evan Mandel.

Mandel called the Second Circuit’s decision “a victory for filmmakers, artists, journalists, readers, viewers, and the marketplace of ideas.”

“The band fails to appreciate the irony of singing about freedom while attempting to use a secret gag order to prevent other artists from expressing views with which the band disagrees,” Mandel said in a statement, invoking the band’s hit song “Free Bird.”

The surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd were represented by Richard G. Haddad from Otterbourg PC. Haddad did not return a request for comment.

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