LOS ANGELES (CN) — Confirming a $5.8 million award to Bruce Willis, an arbitrator found the head of a movie production company “thoroughly non-credible” after his “eight month barrage of misrepresentation” about a film that died a week into shooting.
Willis on Monday asked a Superior Court judge to affirm the arbitrator’s award and enter it as a formal judgment against Benaroya Pictures and its owner, Michael Benaroya.
Benaroya and his production company sued Willis in August, asking the Superior Court to throw out retired Judge Terry Friedman’s award and decision that Benaroya is personally liable as the alter ego of his company.
Friedman, as arbitrator, found that the company and Benaroya breached a contract to pay Willis $8 million to star in an action thriller called “Wake.” Willis was to play “a sociopath with a violent history who attempts to reconnect with his estranged family at his brother’s wake,” Friedman wrote in his decision.
Willis typically earns $6 million to $8 million to lead a feature film and as much as $3 million for a one- or two-day cameo role, according to Friedman.
Michael Benaroya, Benaroya Pictures’ sole owner, has been involved as a producer in more than 20 films. One of them, a 2011 crime thriller called “Catch .44,” starred Willis.
In the deal for “Wake,” Willis and Benaroya Pictures entered into an escrow agreement under which the company was to place $8 million in an escrow account in February 2015, shortly before principal photography was to begin. The accountholder was to pay Willis a portion of the fee each week over the planned seven-week shooting schedule.
Friedman found, however, that Benaroya struggled to find financing for the $25 million project and had managed to put only $3 million into escrow by the time he abandoned production in late March. By that point, Willis had spent two days in front of the cameras.
Willis took the dispute to arbitration, where each side claimed the other had breached the escrow agreement.
Friedman found that during a four-day hearing in January, Willis’s attorney, agent and business affairs manager each gave testimony that was “was clear, credible, consistent and responsive.”
Benaroya did not. His testimony “was often combative, repeatedly evasive, frequently parsed, inconsistent, confusing and, in the end, utterly lacking in credibility,” Friedman wrote.
Asked about whether he had struck a “deal” with Willis’s agent via an email, Benaroya said he didn’t understand “the meaning of the word ‘deal’ in an arbitration context.”
Friedman called that statement “preposterous.”
Sometimes as he testified, “Benaroya’s legs and feet would shake and he would look down or away” in a manner “inconsistent with truthful testimony,” Friedman said.
He also rejected most of Benaroya Pictures’ arguments, for instance, that Willis “ignored warning signs” that the film’s financing was in trouble, and so could not have “reasonably relied” on Benaroya’s statement.
“In essence, BP blames Willis for not discovering Benaroya’s misrepresentations,” Friedman wrote. “This is a startling concession.”
Friedman found that Benaroya and his company breached the escrow agreement and negligently misrepresented that “Wake” was fully funded.
“Benaroya did one thing right,” Friedman wrote in a stinging conclusion. “He retained good attorneys who advanced every imaginable argument to shield him from liability. Yet it was all in vain as the die had been cast nearly two years ago when Benaroya began an eight-month barrage of misrepresentation. Not only was the documentary evidence presented at the plenary arbitration hearing overwhelmingly adverse to Benaroya’s position. Even more devastating was his thoroughly non-credible testimony.”
Friedman issued the arbitration award in April. Benaroya’s August complaint asked the Superior Court to vacate the award because the arbitrator had gone too far by deciding Benaroya was BP’s alter ego.
“The arbitrator exceeded his powers by adding as party to the arbitration a nonsignatory to the arbitration agreement who had not consented to participate in arbitration,” that petition said. “The arbitrator usurped the authority of the courts.”
Benaroya Pictures’ attorneys, David Grossman and Robert Catalano, with Loeb & Loeb, could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.
Allison Hart, with Lavely & Singer, one of Willis’s attorneys, said she expects the same judge will be assigned to hear both Benaroya’s petition and Willis’s petition to affirm the award.
“We obviously agree with the arbitrator’s decision 100 percent,” Hart said. “As the trier of fact, it is up to him to balance the credibility of all the witnesses.”
In addition to awarding Willis $5 million in his unpaid fee, Friedman said he should get $461,000 in prejudgment interest—with more interest accruing at $1,376.65 per day, plus $33,500 in costs and more than $321,000 in attorneys’ fees.
Friedman found Hart’s fees of $475 an hour and her senior partner Martin Singer’s fees of $850 per hour “consistent with rates charged by attorneys of comparable experience, reputation and ability in the Los Angeles community for similar litigation.”
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