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More than a year after receiving national acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, two Miami filmmakers are going to court to regain the distribution rights to their documentary, “Raw Deal,” from Los Angeles-based Artisan Entertainment. The controversial film tells the story of Lisa Gier King, a 31-year-old mother of three who in 1999 was found on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville after allegedly being raped by a group of men from UF’s Delta Chi fraternity. The incident was filmed by the men and, in a remarkable twist, was used by police to arrest King for filing a false police report. With the entire nation up in arms over the alleged rape and its handling by police, Miami filmmakers Alfred Spellman and Billy Corben turned the videotape into a documentary chronicling King’s battle to bring her attackers to justice. In a complaint filed Monday in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, Spellman and Corben are suing Artisan in an effort to rescind the contract they signed with the movie distributor on March 6, 2001. In addition, on Wednesday, the filmmakers filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to allow the duo to distribute the film free from any interference from Artisan. The lawsuit pits the two 23-year-old filmmakers against Artisan Entertainment, whose credits include the blockbuster “The Blair Witch Project.” The filmmakers allege in the lawsuit that in August 2001, five months after signing a letter of agreement to distribute the film, Artisan informed them that it would not release “Raw Deal.” Since then, it is alleged in the complaint, Artisan has steadfastly refused to let the local filmmakers out of the contract to seek another distributor and has made false statements about the film. Corben and Spellman, whose film company is Spellman/Corben Productions, are suing under a subsidiary name, West Avenue Films. “Representatives of Artisan have embarked upon a campaign of misrepresentations relating to ‘Raw Deal’ and West Avenue in a blatant attempt to ensure that, although it refuses to release the film, no other company will contract with West Avenue to do so,” the filmmakers allege in the lawsuit. According to the complaint, Artisan has made several misrepresentations about the film, including its assertion that it is not insurable; that individuals appearing in the film have filed lawsuits relating to the film or have threatened to sue; and that there is a ‘chink’ in the chain of title of the film that has required Artisan to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees to resolve. Speaking prior to the lawsuit, Artisan spokesman Paul Pflug said the only factor hindering release of the film was problems securing necessary liability insurance due to questionable music rights. “The film isn’t being released because the filmmakers could not obtain the necessary clearances,” he said. At issue, according to Pflug, are 28 music cues — snippets from songs — that play in the background during the dorm room rape footage. Because Corben and Spellman have been unable to get permission to use the music that is heard in the video and because the music cannot be removed from the scenes for technical reasons, the filmmakers and Artisan were left in a quandary, Pflug said. Both Artisan and Spellman/Corben agree that last year the filmmakers found an insurer willing to issue a policy that could have covered any damages resulting from music lawsuits. But the two sides disagree about whether the policy, which assumed that the First Amendment protected the use of the songs, would hold up in court. According to Pflug, Artisan’s lawyers maintain that a judge would not uphold that, leaving the studio liable. “In order to release a film, you’ve got to have errors and omissions insurance, which protects both the studio and the filmmakers, but you can’t get that insurance without the music clearances. It’s pretty simple,” Pflug said. Spellman disputes Pflug’s assertion. “Legal and insurance issues were ironed out months ago. … They just didn’t have the money,” Spellman said prior to filing the lawsuit. He said that Artisan’s tumultuous year — which included an aborted initial public offering — put the studio in financial difficulty and that Artisan simply could not afford to distribute his movie. Not true, said Pflug, who added that the company is not in financial turmoil. He declined to discuss the company’s financial health. Artisan is a privately held company. Before the lawsuit, both sides had been in negotiations to transfer the rights to the film back to Spellman and Corben. “The boys are trying to create controversy where it does not exist,” says Pflug. “Simply put, no one can release films when the rights have not been cleared. That includes everything, music, title, everything.” The filmmakers allege that Artisan said it would give up any right to the film if West Avenue paid the film distributor $28,769.63 to reimburse Artisan for costs related to the film. Yet, according to the complaint, after the filmmakers agreed to pay the sum, Artisan refused to sign the agreement releasing West Avenue. Artisan has instead threatened legal action if the local filmmakers attempt to release the film, according to the lawsuit. Spellman and Corben are being represented in the lawsuit by Susan E. Trench of the Miami law firm Goldstein, Tanen & Trench. Trench did not return several calls made to her law office, and Spellman declined to comment after the lawsuit was filed. Pflug, the Artisan spokesman, declined to comment on the lawsuit. The filmmakers had hoped that their success would put Miami on the map as a haven for independent filmmakers. But with the future of the film in question, that could be a long shot. They are planning on a release date in September. “We’ve hired a distribution consultant, and we’re going to do this ourselves,” Spellman said before the suit was filed. “It doesn’t matter what Artisan says. We are going ahead with the release of this film, despite their attempts to hold us back.”

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