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No Comfort in ‘Southern Comfort’ Film

LOS ANGELES (CN) - Pasadena International Film Festival pulled a promising indie flick from its program after its first screenwriter falsely claimed ownership of the work, the filmmakers claim in court.

"Southern Comfort" producer Chris Mammarelli and writer-director Ryan Phillips asked a federal judge to enjoin screenwriter Michael Wallace from claiming he holds the copyright of the film.

Wallace signed over rights to the script almost two years ago, the producer and director say. They ask the court to intervene in time to let them show "Southern Comfort" at this year's Pasadena International Film Festival, which begins in February.

According to the 17-page lawsuit, Phillips optioned Wallace's script "Southern Hospitality" in late 2011, after responding to a posting on Craigslist.

After paying Wallace $1 on the spot for a 12-month option agreement that included "story by" credit for Wallace, Phillips says, he piqued Mammarelli's interest in the script.

The pair then secured financing for the project from a software engineer. In March 2012, they claim, Wallace signed over rights to the screenplay - renamed "Southern Comfort" - as part of an investment agreement.

Though Wallace agreed to take on producing duties, the filmmakers say their new partner refused to give up his day job at his family's restaurant.

They say that when they proceeded without him, Wallace grew "unhinged and began exhibiting mood swings that were indeterminate and unpredictable."

"One telephone call or email expressing excitement about the project would quickly be followed by a frenzied call or email accusing Mammarelli or Phillips of trying to steal the project away from him," the complaint states. "Wallace's erratic behavior soon became harassing, to the point where he was calling Mammarelli and Phillips dozens of times in a single day."

Wallace did not react kindly when the team ended his creative involvement in the project: he made multiple threats of legal action and claimed he was sole owner of the script, according to the complaint.

As the dispute dragged on, the filmmakers say, Wallace and his attorney claimed that Phillips had never paid the $1 option for the script - prompting Phillips to write another $1 check and send it by certified mail.

Because Wallace never made good on his threats, the filmmakers say, they continued to produce the film, committing tens of thousands of dollars to the project.

Wallace did not rear his head again until March 2013, the filmmakers say, when he again issued a demand that Phillips and Mammarelli cease and desist from using his work - or pay him $20,000, 10 percent of the film's budget. (23)

By that time, the filmmakers say, they were moving into post-production. By the end of 2013, the Pasadena International Film Festival had picked "Southern Comfort" as an official selection.

"With the film now poised for an impressive debut, Wallace and his counsel saw another opportunity to strike," the complaint states, setting "their sights on a new target - the festival itself."

The filmmakers claim that Wallace and his attorney Tyra Smith held the film to "ransom" by telling festival organizers that Wallace owned the copyright to "Southern Comfort."

Wallace then demanded that Phillips and Mammarelli pay him $150,000 - though the film cost just $110,000 to make - or grant him ownership of the film, according to the complaint.

"Or, of course, there was the implicit third option: Let the film rot on the shelf while festival after festival, and distributor after distributor, steered clear of the film based on the cloud Wallace had cast over its copyright," the complaint states.

In light of Wallace's threats, the filmmakers say, the festival removed "Southern Comfort" from its lineup.

Unlike studio releases, independent films rely on the festival circuit to secure distribution. The filmmakers say that unless the court takes action, "Southern Comfort" will become a "footnote in the annals of independent filmmaking."

They seek declaratory judgment, quiet title in copyright, and damages and punitive damages for tortious interference with contract, tortious interference with prospective economic advantage, and violation of the business and professions code.

They are represented by Robert Klieger with Kendall Brill & Klieger.

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