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Accounting for Hollywood


The Inside Story of Buchwald v. Paramount

By Pierce O'Donnell and Dennis McDougal

Doubleday, $22.50

Reviewed by Hal Lipper

It took four years for humorist Art Buchwald and producer-partner Alain Bernheim to win a pair of judgments against Paramount Pictures for their share of profits from Eddie Murphy's hit comedy Coming to America.

At times, it seems to take just as long to sift through Fatal Subtraction: The Inside Story of Buchwald v. Paramount, the 576-page account of the proceedings.

Written by Buchwald's attorney Pierce O'Donnell and Los Angeles Times reporter Dennis McDougal, this opus is as detailed and deadly as many of the depositions it recounts.

Missing from the tome is an insider's sense of how Hollywood operates. Instead, Fatal Subtraction's readers get a meticulous accounting of the film industry's shady bookkeeping practices after Buchwald wins his initial suit, claiming Paramount misappropriated a 2{-page story treatment that eventually became Coming to America.

It's hardly news to anyone who has kept up with the film industry that the studios are able to show losses on individual movies yet turn a healthy profit for stockholders. This is done through "net profits" or "monkey points" in which extraneous charges _ the studio's overhead and living expenses for stars _ are subtracted from movies' grosses.

Buchwald's suit and the subsequent trial over the amount Paramount actually owed him brought these inequities to light. According to O'Donnell, it set a precedent for change. Though O'Donnell considers the Buchwald case to be as important as the antitrust legislation that relieved the studios of their ownership of movie theaters, the remedies borne by Buchwald v. Paramount are not as evident.

As it now stands, Paramount Pictures is appealing the court's award of a measly $150,000 for Buchwald and $750,000 for Bernheim. Expenses have cost the pair $400,000. O'Donnell's law firm is out $2.5-million, having taken the case on a contingency basis.

Early in Fatal Subtraction, a Paramount executive details his "pitch" sessions with Murphy, meetings where movie ideas were proposed to the star. Paramount's brass called these "M-E-G-O" meetings, or "My eyes glaze over," because Murphy would sit there, nod his head in boredom and listen.

Too often Fatal Subtraction resembles a 41-chapter M-E-G-O meeting with O'Donnell and McDougal making the pitch.

Hal Lipper is film critic for the Times.