While Sony executives watch their surprise hit “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” near the $100 million mark, apparent legal maneuvering over rights to the film’s story threatens to smear the glowing success story of an unlikely box office hero. Indiewire had the story up first, and the schadenfreude over what Defamer is calling Blartgate is now in full swing.
The Kevin James project already had dealings with Alfred Thomas Catalfo, a screenwriter who wrote and registered a script with an almost identical plot, "Mall Cop," during shooting last summer, according to a member of the crew.
Now that the film is a hit, Catalfo confirmed on Wednesday that there is a "developing legal situation" anew. He said he submitted his script in 2002 and on one other occasion to Happy Madison, Adam Sandler’s production company, which made “Paul Blart.”
Catalfo's "Mall Cop" has a plot very close to Sony’s lightweight hit comedy: a security guard -- Art Stover, rather than Paul Blart -- with low self-esteem and a beer belly helps save a mall from bank robbers.
“Paul Blart” surprised everyone at the studio by taking in more than $84 million at the box office after only three weekends in theaters.
There are a number of other striking similarities between Catalfo’s script and “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” Both scripts have scenes that involve robots and scenes that take place in a Rainforest Café as well as a Victoria’s Secret store.
Catalfo, who is a lawyer, declined to give details about what he called a “developing legal situation.” His script, registered with the Writers Guild in 2000 and entitled “Mall Cop,” went on to become a winner or finalist in 12 screenwriting competitions.
“Paul Blart” was written by Kevin James and Nick Bakay.
Catalfo’s “Mall Cop” screenplay is posted in its entirety on his web site.
The writer described his “Mall Cop”: “It’s about a robbery at the mall in which hostages are taken and the mall cop, through his knowledge of this mall, has to save the day. It’s a hostage situation with police outside,” he explained. Catalfo practices personal injury and criminal law in New Hampshire and has been writing screenplays since the early 1990s.
Hollywood is no stranger to dueling screenplays emerging at the same time through separate channels. Often they are not related but appear coincidentally at about the same time – notably “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon,” and “Tombstone” and “Wyatt Earp.”
In fact, the upcoming Seth Rogen comedy “Observe and Report” - set to debut in March at the South by Southwest Festival – also features a mall cop.
But the number of similarities between Catalfo’s “Mall Cop” and “Paul Blart” are remarkable, especially considering Catalfo says he submitted his work to Happy Madison.
“At this time I can’t comment on any legal matters and I’m not making any claims or accusations about whether the script was stolen,” he said. “My script ‘Mall Cop’ was submitted directly to Happy Madison on at least two occasions, the earliest being 2002. The response from them was, ‘we prefer to develop projects in-house.’”
Happy Madison Productions would not confirm whether Catalfo’s script had been submitted to the company. Kevin James is not affiliated with Happy Madison, though he starred alongside Sandler in 2007’s “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.”
On Tuesday, TheWrap received an email from Duke McBride, who said he worked on the “Paul Blart” film set. According to McBride, the film’s title was mysteriously switched to “Untitled Kevin James Project” during production at the Burlington Mall in Massachusetts and then changed back to “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” a few weeks later.
“The writer was a lawyer and was really giving the producers a hard time,” wrote McBride. “Kevin James looked pretty sheepish for a few days too.”
“One guy there who was definitely in a position to know said the studio was so shocked when they read the scripts side-by-side that that they immediately sent a Sony bigwig to NH with an apology and a check to ‘work it out’ in typical Hollywood fashion,” McBride wrote. “I also remember hearing that the writer was a lawyer and was really giving the producers a hard time. Kevin James looked pretty sheepish for a few days too.”
Asked to comment on the allegations about the script, Sony spokesman Steve Elzer replied: “While we have a policy of not commenting on allegations such as these, we stand by the fact that the movie was written by Kevin James & Nick Bakay.”
“It’s a non-story. Kevin James and Nick Bakay wrote the script,” said a spokesman for the Endeavor Agency, where James is a client.
Neither addressed the question of whether James and Bakay had seen or were familiar with the Catalfo script.
The Motion Picture Association of America confirmed that Catalfo registered “Mall Cop” with the organization, but a representative in the title registration department said Catalfo’s title had expired.
“But I know that he made some sort of agreement” with studios that had also registered the title, said the representative, declining to reveal any more information.
Catalfo said that when he first became aware of that a story about a mall cop was in production, he rushed to read the script. “I said, ‘this sounds familiar,’” he recalled.
In a video interview posted on About.com (link to: (http://video.about.com/movies/Paul-Blart-Steve-Carr.htm)
), “Paul Blart” co-writer Nick Bakay says he drew inspiration for the script partly from his own 1979 stint as a security guard one summer during college.
If a screenwriter like Catalfo were to take legal action, there are two types of claims he could make – for copyright infringement or for breach of implied contract, also known as a submission claim.
"With a claim for copyright infringement, you have to prove access and substantial similarity between the two scripts by comparing things like the scenes, characters, timing and situation," said Michael J. Plonsker, Esq., co-chair of the entertainment and media department at Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi LLP. "With an implied contract or submission claim, the plaintiff would have to prove that he submitted his idea to the company and said that ‘if you use it, you must compensate and credit me.’"
But such cases are often hard to win for screenwriters going up against big studios or conglomerates, said Linda Lichter, who practices entertainment law with Lichter, Grossman, Nichols & Adler.
“Pretty much every single successful movie has a claim against it and the screenwriters rarely win,” she said.