News October 23, 2015

20th Century Fox moves to get $10m Empire lawsuit dismissed

20th Century Fox is moving to have a US$10 million copyright lawsuit against its popular Empire series dismissed.

It’s one of a series of court cases against the hip hop show which launched this year and drew huge ratings in the US.

Self-described “gangsta pimp and drug dealer” Ron Newt claims Empire is based on his own life story, about which he wrote in the book Bigger Than Big. He also wrote a screenplay and DVD documentary based on the book.

He says that in 2010, he met with Empire actor Terrence Howard and told him about his life story over three hours. He gave a copy of the book and screenplay, and these were used in Empire.

Bigger Than Big depicts a violent African American man bringing his three sons up in a ghetto and moves from a life of crime to the music industry. Newt points out similarities from his book include the killing of four drug dealers, the use of a round table, and a character called China Doll who went to jail and was fond of hats likeEmpire character Cookie Lyon.

The Hollywood Reporter says that in its 34-page filing, 20th Century Fox claims Empire is a “modern take on Shakespeare’s King Lear” or a “contemporary take on Dynasty, a 1980s primetime soap opera that focused on the family drama around a succession plan for a patriarch running an oil empire.”

It emphasises, Empire is not based on the “crudely written, violent, regretful autobiographical works” of Ron Newt, self-described “gangsta pimp.”

The Fox explanation to the court says Empire is not about someone who was in crime or dealing drugs. “Instead,Empire is about a drug dealer-turned-rapper-turned-music mogul who, believing he has a terminal illness, seeks a successor from among his three sons, while battling with the women in his life.”

Both Howard and Empire creator Lee Daniels have always denied the show had any connection with Newt’s story. For starters, Newt’s story is about how he managed his three sons pop trio but couldn’t break it into the music industry. The Lyon family of Empire, however, are at the top of their game.

Empire has also been hit by with a half a billion dollar lawsuit claiming copyright infringement. Jon Astor-White claims that in 2007 he shopped around a show called King Solomon about the battle by a record company and his family for control of their record company.

A third lawsuit is by Michigan woman Sophia Eggleston, who insists that the no-nonsense Cookie Lyon is based entirely on her life, which she recounted in her 2010 book The Hidden Hand. The character, played by Taraji P. Henson, spent 17 years in prison on drug charges and on release turned her life around. Eggleston says she spent four years in jail for voluntary manslaughter, turned her life around when she was released, also has a fetish for mink coats and has a tumultuous relationship with the father of her child.

She says she gave a copy to screenwriter Rita Grant Miller who said she would contact Miller about doing a film version. Miller later passed on the project. But she is adamant, “They stole my life.”

Lee Daniels is facing a fourth lawsuit – this one for $10 million by actor Sean Penn for defamation. This stemmed from an interview last month in The Hollywood Reporter where Daniels was defending Empire star Terrence Howard who has a history of domestic abuse allegations and admitted to hitting his first wife in Rolling Stone last month.

“That poor boy,” Daniels said of Howard. “[Terrence] ain’t done nothing different than Marlon Brando or Sean Penn, and all of a sudden he’s some f***in’ demon… That’s a sign of the times, of race, of where we are right now in America.”

Penn’s lawsuit argues, “Daniels has falsely asserted and/or implied that Penn is guilty of ongoing, continuous violence against women.” The doc went on to state: “…while [Penn] has certainly had several brushes with the law, Penn (unlike Howard) has never been arrested, much less convicted, for domestic violence, as his ex-wives (including Madonna) would confirm and attest.”

Empire, which is screened in Australia, began its second season in America last month and drew 16.7 million viewers to its season one finale in mid-March.

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