LOS ANGELES (CN) — “God’s Not Dead” grossed $140 million for producer Pure Flix Entertainment, but it was based on a screenplay by two writers — one of them the son of the late Michael Landon — who say they deserve $100 million for it.
Kelly Monroe Kullberg and Michael Landon Jr. sued Pure Flix and producer-actor David A.R. White on Monday in Federal Court.
Pure Flix, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., produces faith-based films for global distribution; White is a co-founder and principal partner of Pure Flix.
“God’s Not Dead” is the story of a young Christian woman vying with an atheist professor at a fictional elite U.S. college. The woman publicly debates her professor three times, struggles to maintain her religious faith at the risk of losing entry into graduate school, and ultimately triumphs.
Kullberg claims it’s the same story she and Landon wrote for a faith-based film they called “Rise.” The $140 million “God’s Not Dead” earned at the box office made it the highest-grossing independent film released in 2014, according to the complaint.
“Audiences who enjoyed ‘God’s Not Dead’ did not know, however, that the most important creative elements did not originate with defendants,” Kullberg says in the lawsuit. She says the “most important creative elements” in the movie come from the screenplay for “Rise.”
Kullberg, of Columbus, Ohio, founded the Christian nonprofit Veritas Forum. She edited and co-wrote the book, “Finding God at Harvard,” and wrote her autobiography, “Finding God Beyond Harvard: The Quest for Veritas,” which “contributed to the story and screenplay, ‘Rise,'” she says in the complaint.
Kullberg says “Rise” is largely based on her own experiences, which are depicted in her autobiography, and ultimately, in “God’s Not Dead.”
Landon, of Austin, Texas, is a producer, writer and director who has worked in the entertainment industry since 1977. He read Kullberg’s book in 2009, contacted her, and they co-wrote the screenplay, with equal ownership in it.
Kullberg says she registered the “Rise” screenplay with the Writers Guild of America in 2010 and with the U.S. Copyright Office in 2012, and she and Landon continued working on it. She says she provided details of the “Rise” script to a colleague, who relayed it to another person, who passed it on to White and Pure Flix.
Kullberg says Pure Flix and White had been trying to produce a similar “apologetics” film, dramatizing arguments about the existence of God, but never came up with a satisfactory screenplay, so they dropped it — until they learned about “Rise.”
She says “God’s Not Dead” borrows many of the story elements used in “Rise” and presents them in the same sequence. She says she learned of the infringing film while watching a trailer for it in 2013.
Kullberg says she notified Pure Flix, met with its representatives and discussed the infringing content, but Pure Flix called it a coincidence and dropped the matter.
She says Pure Flix gave her four different explanations about how it came up with a screenplay containing more than 100 similarities to her “Rise” screenplay, agreed to non-binding mediation, and then retracted the offer, and refuses to address her and Landon’s concerns.
Kullberg and Landon seek declaratory judgment and more than $100 million for copyright infringement and lost profits.
They are represented by Kim Meyer, with Irell & Manella, who was not immediately available by telephone Tuesday.
Pure Flix did not respond to an email request for comment Tuesday and did not have a spokesman immediately available by telephone.
Landon is the son of award-winning actor, writer and director Michael Landon, best known for his television role as family patriarch Charles Ingalls in the long-running series “Little House on the Prairie,” which aired from 1974 to 1983.
Michael Landon also played Little Joe Cartwright on “Bonanza” from 1959 to 1973, and the Earth-bound angel Jonathan Smith on “Highway to Heaven” from 1984 to 1989, among other roles.
He died of pancreatic cancer on July 1, 1991, at 54.
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