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Just as a divorce is never really about who takes out the trash, Hollywood lawsuits aren’t about who got ripped off on a movie deal. When any relationship melts down, whether personal or business (and don’t let anyone kid you — in Hollywood money is about as personal as it gets), the issue is always power. That is driving the most recent legal clash of the titans in Tinseltown: Universal Studios v. Mike Myers (and, if Myers’ lawyer makes good on his vow to countersue, there’s soon to be a sequel: Myers v. Universal). In “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” last summer’s hit film, Myers may have been able to foil Dr. Evil, but that was nothing compared to the dark forces he faces at Universal. Now the suits are after him, and hell hath no fury like a studio executive scorned. The Myers legal blitzkrieg was green-lighted after a tense meeting May 30 between the star, studio president Ron Meyer, and other top brass about a film on which Universal was banking (quite literally) as its summer 2001 hit. Myers had been hired to star in and co-write a feature film based on the “Sprockets” gig he popularized on “Saturday Night Live,” in which he played Dieter, a quirky German performance artist whose inspiration was his monkey. (His popular catchphrase was “touch my monkey.”) At the meeting, Myers declared that the script stunk. Depending upon whom you believe, he then either refused to make the film, which was scheduled to begin shooting in August, or told the suits the script needed more work. Releasing the film next summer, he said, would have resulted in a rushed, inferior movie. A week later, Universal filed a nasty suit in Los Angeles Superior Court, seeking to recover damages from Myers and prevent him from accepting any other projects during the time he would have been making Dieter. If that sounds harsh, it was a mere prelude to Universal’s next power play. The studio upped the ante (and the angst in Hollywood) considerably by halting production on the film in June, firing 25 employees attached to the project and pointing the finger (we won’t say which one) directly at Myers. Myers’ lawyer, litigator-to-the-stars Marty Singer of Century City, Calif., says Universal was trying to “bully” his client into making the movie “at the cost of his career and artistic integrity.” The studio’s longtime outside counsel, Ron Olson of Munger, Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles, who filed the complaint, did not return calls. Myers issued a statement that he was “shocked and dismayed” at the suit but could “not in good conscience accept $20 million and cheat moviegoers who pay their hard-earned money to see my work.” That’s when things started to get interesting. Steven Spielberg, who has no connection to the suit but who does have long ties to Universal, where he got his start, tried to mediate. Say what? The head of a competing studio trying to make someone else’s picture a go? The move was spun as “one friend trying to help another,” but truth be told, Spielberg stepped in at the behest of his Dreamworks partner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who has been working with Myers on the animated film, “Shrek.” No one (except private litigation counsel) benefits when a major star is unhappy. And besides, when it comes to Dieter, everyone wants the same thing: to make the picture and make a lot of money. Myers originally signed onto the project for $10 million, which he renegotiated to double that amount after the success of the Austin Powers sequel. For Universal, which is suing to recover the more than $3.8 million it says it has invested to make Dieter, the stakes are even higher. The studio badly needs a hit after its recent string of losses and with a buyout of its parent, Seagram, pending from Vivendi. But on the other side, the studio’s potentially more costly long-term risk is in alienating top talent. Look at it this way: Myers’ last Austin Powers film grossed a groovy $300 million worldwide. Universal can’t afford to let too many stars in Myers’ league slip away. But neither can a studio afford to dump millions into a project if a star feels he can take his football and go home when he doesn’t like the quarterback’s play. While Myers had script approval over Dieter and apparently felt justified in exercising it, studio lawyers say it’s about time the entertainment industry stands up to what some see as capriciousness among superstars. “This case is all about the power shift between studios and talent,” says Alexandra Denman, an entertainment partner with Carroll, Burdick & McDonough in Los Angeles who has handled numerous studio deals. “In the old days, the studios were in the captain’s chair. But now there are five or six actors who can open a movie and the studios are all competing for them,” she says. That has emboldened talent to withdraw from deals when a more enticing project comes along (although Myers denies that is an issue) and has changed the dynamics of movie deals, Denman says. “Your dealmaking now includes your litigation counsel.” Michael Sherman, an entertainment partner with Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro in Century City, says, “I’m not sitting over in the black tower [at Universal], so I don’t know what happened. It sounds like Universal got fed up with Myers. But I won’t be surprised if the case settles.” That may be in everyone’s best interests. “If the picture doesn’t get made, you better believe Universal will trot out experts to testify that a Mike Myers film would have made x-million dollars,” says Sherman. That, no doubt, is why Sony and John Travolta patched it up on the eve of trial after the star walked off the set of “The Double” in 1996 five days before shooting. Nobody wanted an instant replay of the protracted (and pricey) litigation between Mainline Pictures and Kim Basinger, who refused to star in “Boxing Helena” because of a script dispute. That picture was eventually made with another actress, and Basinger ended up filing bankruptcy. Where would Dieter and his monkey be if that happened?

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