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“The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” With this phrase — taken from a monologue rivaled only by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross — Michael Douglas immortalized his character from the 1987 film “Wall Street,” a soulless investment banker named Gordon Gekko. And, while Gekko provided other memorable one-liners — see, e.g., “lunch is for wimps” — his aforementioned “greed is good” catchphrase stands as the quintessential moment in the film, if not Douglas’ career.
Just ask his ex-wife, Diandra. When the couple split, her attorney she made sure to retain an interest in certain future exploitations of the Gekko character, as the divorce agreement allegedly contains language that Diandra says entitles her to half the proceeds from “spin-offs” of works created when the couple was married. Wall Street is one such work. While the agreement has not be made public, I will assume that it uses the term “spin-offs” and not other closely-related terms, such as “sequels.”
In fact, Michael Douglas and his attorneys are operating under the same assumption, arguing that Douglas’ upcoming film, entitled Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, constitutes a sequel, but not a spin-off. So, what’s the difference? Since the agreement allegedly does not define the term “spin-offs,” it should be given its traditional meaning.
The dictionary is always a good place to start in these situations. A sequel is essentially “the next installment of a story,” where the plot naturally progresses while the characters and narrative point of view remain largely unchanged. A spin-off, on the other hand, is “something that is imitative or derivative of an earlier work, product, or establishment; especially: a television show starring a character popular in a secondary role of an earlier show.”
For example, Godfather 2 and 3 are sequels, as the films follow the same general set of characters as the plots progress. Spin-offs are generally more popular in television than film (though, after watching more than two minutes of “Joey,” one is left to wonder why), but they are not unheard of on the silver screen. Get Him to the Greek, for instance, is a successful example of a spin-off, since it centers around a character that originated — as a secondary role — in an earlier film, Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
So, which box does Douglas’ upcoming film fall into? The film, slotted for a September release, follows Gekko upon his release from prison (sorry to spoil the original if you haven’t seen it) and, of course, his attempted reconciliation with his daughter. All cliches aside, the film raises the issue of whether Diandra is entitled to a fifty-percent stake in Douglas’ income with respect to this work. There are a couple different ways to think about this.
(1) One is to strictly construe the agreement. That is, while the agreement entitled her to “spin-offs,” it did not entitle her to “sequels” unless it explicitly provided as such. Courts shouldn’t rewrite contracts, blah, blah, blah.
(2) Another argument is that, notwithstanding the language of the agreement, the intention of the parties was to convey an interest in all “derivative works” that Douglas exploits in the future. This term comes from copyright law and would encompass both a sequel and a spin-off. If the purpose of the provision was to provide Diandra with a share of the benefit from any future use of a work created while the couple was married, this would make sense. Of course, for a counter to this argument, see paragraph (1).
(3) Finally, a court could simply determine whether the film fits the bill as a “spin-off.” If I were a judge, it would be a sequel. Gekko was a major character in the first film and, assuming the upcoming installment does not come solely from his point of view, does not appear to have a drastically greater role in the new flick.
In the end, I’m sure the parties will settle out of court. But Douglas should be wary when the studios come-a-knockin’ for him to reprise his “guy driving the Jeep” character from 1966′s Cast a Giant Shadow.
– Jesse Bland