John Singleton on his 'Hustle & Flow' suit against Paramount
"Hustle & Flow" was such a sensation at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival that John Singleton, who produced and financed the film himself, had a host of studios bidding for the film. Even though other studios offered more money, Singleton says he went with Paramount Pictures because it not only agreed to pay $9 million for the film, but also pledged to finance and distribute two films of Singleton's choosing, with $3.5-million budgets.
"Hustle & Flow" went on to make $22 million in the United States, earned glowing reviews and won an Oscar. But more than six years after the deal was signed, Singleton is suing Paramount for $20 million, saying the studio failed to live up to its end of the bargain, having never made either picture in the agreement (which is known in Hollywood as a "put" deal).
"I'd always had a great relationship with Paramount, going back to being an intern on the lot when I was at USC," Singleton told me. "But a deal's a deal and they didn't honor the deal. I could have sold 'Hustle & Flow' for more money to someone else, but Paramount promised something special — giving me the ability to make two low-budget films with young filmmakers and great talent. All I've ever done is make money for Paramount. I've lived up to all the deals I've signed and it should work both ways."
Responding to the suit, which was filed Wednesday morning in Los Angeles County Superior Court, a Paramount representative said: “Paramount was hoping that John Singleton would produce two more pictures before his agreement with our studio ended in 2010, but that did not happen. Instead, he went on to direct 'Abduction' for Lionsgate. Paramount fulfilled all of its obligations and his claims have absolutely no merit."
Best known for his groundbreaking 1991 debut film, "Boyz N' the Hood," Singleton had carved out a successful career as a filmmaker by the time he took "Hustle & Flow" to Sundance, having directed a number of commercial pictures, including a remake of "Shaft" at Paramount. But his goal was to become a producer, overseeing modestly budgeted, multicultural genre films that he believed would fill a void in the marketplace.
When he couldn't find financing for "Hustle & Flow," which starred Terrence Howard as a Memphis pimp who after a midlife crisis embarks on a career as a hip-hop emcee, Singleton put up $5 million of his own money to bankroll the project. He also mentored Craig Brewer, the film's first-time director, who also made his second film, "Black Snake Moan," with Singleton as producer. Brewer just directed the remake of "Footloose," also at Paramount.
After "Hustle & Flow's" first Sundance screening, four studios — New Line, Columbia, Focus Features and Paramount — were in a spirited bidding war to buy the film. According to press reports at the time, New Line offered $10 million for the film, but Singleton opted for Paramount's $9-million offer, believing that its sweetener — the two put pictures — gave him a real opportunity to pursue his goal of producing genre films. Singleton had a 4 a.m. conversation with Paramount chief Brad Grey, who was personally involved in making the offer of the put projects.
Singleton is represented by Marty Singer and Stephen D. Barnes. Singer is one of the top litigators in show business, having represented the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charlie Sheen and Quentin Tarantino, who once had Singer file suit against Tarantino's neighbor, the writer Alan Ball, claiming that Ball's screeching macaws were preventing Tarantino from working. Singer said the suit was amicably resolved.
Singleton believed the Paramount put deal would give him an opportunity to showcase his talent as a producer. "The model I wanted to set up is a lot like the model other people are going after — to make small movies that have a real pop-culture value," says Singleton, whose thriller "Abduction" starred Taylor Lautner. "It's worked with films like 'Juno' and 'Paranormal Activity' because there's a niche audience that just isn't served by the big Hollywood franchises."
But after several years of submitting projects to Paramount, both in the form of sketched-out ideas and in the form of packaged films, with talent attached, Singleton said he became concerned that Paramount seemed uninterested in anything he wanted to make. "They just kept thwarting my efforts to make any of the movies," he says. "I gave them a number of projects and they were all rejected. It became plain that they weren't going to honor the deal."
Singleton's suit contends that after years of haggling, Paramount began "asserting self-imposed, non-existent conditions on the puts that prevented Singleton from making the pictures." The biggest bone of contention is that roughly four years after the deal was signed, when Singleton's representatives began showing concern about the deal being honored, Paramount told them that Singleton had to deliver scripted, fully completed films by Jan. 22, 2010 — five years after the original deal was signed.
The lawsuit contends that none of these conditions were in the original agreement, saying that Paramount "actively concealed and failed to disclose these conditions" to Singleton at the time of the "Hustle & Flow" negotiations.
"This is about me as a producer and a business person," Singleton says. "I invested my time and money in this project. It was about being an entrepreneur. I thought I had a partner in Paramount, but that's not what happened. Whatever films I wanted to make there, it feels like no one was ever listening."
-- Patrick Goldstein
Photo: John Singleton at the premiere of the film "Abduction" in Los Angeles last month.
Credit: Matt Sayles / Associated Press