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Fatal Subtraction

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

FATAL SUBTRACTION: HOW HOLLYWOOD REALLY DOES BUSINESS tells how Paramount Studios absconded with an idea of newspaper columnist Art Buchwald and used it as the basis of COMING TO AMERICA, a feature film starring actor Eddie Murphy. Murphy eventually gave up on Buchwald’s story line yet kept his main character, an African visitor to America, intact.

Veteran trial lawyer Pierce O’Donnell was hired to represent Buchwald in a $1 million lawsuit against the studio, a proceeding which lasted four years and cost Buchwald considerable money and ongoing worry. Here Hollywood’s “wink and handshake” way of doing business, its greedy, rapacious dealmakers, and its bent toward plagiarism are the true subjects, the book providing an emphatic answer of “yes” to the question, is Hollywood really as corrupt as it appears to be from most media accounts?

The whole arduous process of assembling a case against Paramount Studios is given in considerable detail by O’Donnell and coauthor Dennis McDougal. The big studios sometimes use gentle persuasion but more frequently resort to vicious attempts to checkmate any opposition. This viciousness is simply “business as usual” in an industry reliant upon the ideas of creative writers who can produce“high concept” films. Indeed, Buchwald’s not-to-be-underestimated clout as a well-known media personality was almost not enough to fight Paramount, a goliath of the film business. (One can only imagine the difficulties a lesser figure would encounter fighting the Hollywood system.) Paramount hired three law firms and spent from $5 to $7 million to defend itself, and Buchwald also ran up huge expenses pursuing the case, though the book’s authors and Buchwald found it worthwhile to take Paramount to court. Despite high court costs, they received the verdict they wanted: Paramount was found guilty and ordered to pay a total of $900,000 in damages. Better yet, Buchwald had made his point, best summed up in O’Donnell’s final argument, “Regardless of what happens on Paramounts appeal, this case will endure forever in the hearts and minds of people who put a higher value on principles than profits.”

FATAL SUBTRACTION gives readers the chance to understand how Hollywood’s hidden dealmaking really works. It’s a lively combination of behind-the-scenes reportage and analysis.