Widow Fights Film on Fatal Lynyrd Skynyrd Crash

MANHATTAN (CN) – Hoping to shut down an upcoming movie about the 1977 plane crash that killed members of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd, widow Judith Van Zant testified Tuesday that the film sensationalizes a tragedy governed by a decades-old settlement.

“Not in a million years would I have consented to it,” Van Zant said of the upcoming film “Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash.”

Back in 1988, representatives of several living and deceased members of the band reached a settlement governing the use of the band’s name along with the “name, likeness, portrait, picture, performances or biographical material” of Ronnie Van Zant, who founded the band and wrote most of their songs, and guitarist Steve Gaines.

Former drummer Artimus Pyle advised the upcoming film by Cleopatra Records but did not appear at Tuesday’s hearing, where Judith Van Zant called the movie a “compressed” and “sensationalized” story that fails to highlight Lynyrd Skynyrd’s greatness.

Among other things, she said the film incorrectly portrays the plane’s pilots as intoxicated, despite a toxicology report by the National Transportation Safety Board that disputes any allegations of alcohol or drugs and attributes the crash to strictly running out of fuel.

Pyle was reportedly playing a prototype of the 1970s video game “Pong” on board when the plane crashed in rural Mississippi. He survived the plane crash with less-serious injuries than those sustained by his fellow bandmates and road crew, only to be shot by a farmer while seeking help in the aftermath of the crash. The former drummer now lives outside of Ashville in Black Mountain, North Carolina.

U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet has presided over both the 1988 civil action and the current dispute.

To delineate the pre-crash and post-crash eras of the iconic Southern rock band, the 1988 consent decree requires post-crash incarnations of Lynyrd Skynyrd to include the year after the band name.

Van Zant’s widow testified today that the band dropped the year in the name around 1993.

She holds a 50 percent share of Ronnie Van Zant Inc., split with two of the songwriter’s daughters.

Ronnie Van Zant Inc. is named as co-plaintiff in the lawsuit along with current Lynyrd Skynyrd musicians Gary Rossington and Jonny Van Zant, and representatives for deceased members Allen Collins and Steve Gaines.

Butting heads with attorneys in cross-examination, Judith Van Zant appeared frustrated in trying to explain multiple times that she and the Estate of Ronnie Van Zant treat documentaries about the band differently than feature films using the names and likenesses the Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines.

Van Zant described one band-approved movie about the band, currently in the treatment stage, as a passion project for producer Jeff Waxman, who previously produced the 1996 Lynyrd Skynyrd documentary “Freebird … The Movie.”

In a May 11 opposition brief, attorneys for Cleopatra Records argued that there is no risk of confusion “because Cleopatra is going to explicitly advise viewers at the outset of the film that it has not been authorized by the band or any of its members.”  

Cleopatra’s attorneys have demanded that the script of their unreleased “Street Survivors” stay sealed during the trial. 

Appeared via television link from Los Angeles, Cleopatra CEO Brian Perera testified Tuesday about Pyle’s role in “Street Survivors” as co-producer or consultant.

Perera said Pyle had been interviewed for details about the week leading up to the plane crash but did not write any of the film’s script.

Lynyrd Skynyrd still performs today, with Gary Rossington serving as the lone original founding member still with the band. Ronnie Van Zant’s brother Johnny took over on vocals for the band’s reunion in 1987, marking the 10th anniversary of the plane crash.

Founded as an obscure rock record label in 1992, Cleopatra Records recently acquired all U.S. rights to Morrissey biopic “Steven” with Jack Lowden as the legendary British singer and frontman of The Smiths. Following a number of smaller direct-to-video ventures and partnerships on indie titles, the acquisition marks the company’s expansion into film distribution and production.

Further testimony in the case is expected Wednesday.

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