Producer Did Not Breach Actor Agreement When Actor’s Voice Was Dubbed
by Jerry Glover
October 25, 2017
Search Goggle for the actor “Paz de la Huerta.” Yeah, I didn’t know who she was either. But she recently made sort of a name for herself in a recent case she brought against production company Lions Gate Entertainment. De la Huerta appeared in a film produced/distributed by Lionsgate in which she was used as an on-camera actor in 201 dialog parts. In post-production, she was called on to record voice-over narration parts. Those parts were later re-recorded using a voice double without de la Huerta’s knowledge. De la Huerta was not pleased with the actor who dubbed her voice-over lines claiming the performance was stilted and dead. She sued claiming breach of contract. De la Huerta v. Lions Gate Entertainment Corp., 2017 WL 4676234 (Cal. App. October 18, 2017) (unpublished; nonprecedential).
The defendant filed what is known as a SLAPP motion claiming that de la Huerta’s claim about breach of contract was in direct contradiction to the film company’s first amendment rights. The trial court granted the film company’s SLAPP motion. California has a very broad strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) law which not only prohibits government restriction of free speech rights through litigation but also prohibits any lawsuit based on first amendment activity in which the defendant has engaged. See Cal. Code Civ. Proc., Sec. 425.156, subd. (b)(1). The defendant bringing the SLAPP motion must prove that defendant was engaged in first amendment activity and that the activity involved a matter of public interest (as the California courts have interpreted this, “public interest” is so broadly defined it governs even gossip about celebrities). The only thing a plaintiff has to do when a SLAPP motion is filed is prove that her claim has minimal merit.
The court held that the dubbing was a “creative decision” that implicated a matter of public interest and, therefore, fell within the purview of the SLAPP statute.
But the court pointed out that determining the SLAPP law applies in this situation does not speak to the merits of de la Huerta’s breach of contract claim. One element of a breach of contract claim is damages. What damages has de la Huerta suffered, if any, as a result of the dubbing? De la Huerta claimed she had suffered damages because of “trademark confusion” that caused her “severe emotional distress” because viewers mistook the voice double’s incompetent performance as her own.
The court first noted that de la Huerta’s contract, like most actor contracts, allows the producer to dub or simulate her voice at the producer’s sole discretion subject to any requirements of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG–the union that represents film actors). The SAG agreement permits voice dubbing “when the performer fails or is unable to meet certain requirements of the role, such as singing or the rending of instrumental music… .l” The court noted that the use of the phrase “such as” did not limit the situations in which dubbing is allowed under the SAG agreement. Which means dubbing for reasons not specifically mentioned in the SAG agreement are allowed. So de la Huerta could not show that her contract had been breached.
But de la Huerta also claimed that viewers of the film were confused because they mistakenly identified the dubbed portion of the film as her own performance. She quoted one review of the film which stated that de la Huerta delivered a “somnambulistic” performance “of beyond-purple lines, such as they are like diseased cells cultured in alcohol petri dishes.’” The person writing this review was not aware that de la Huerta’s voice had been dubbed. But the court noted that the review was not limited to the dubbed portions of the film; the reviewer was “disappointed” in the film’s message and the way de la Huerta performed throughout the course of the film.
The court also tossed de la Huerta’s right of publicity claim which was based on the use of her name and image in the film. The court noted that the production company did not use her name/likeness except as part of the film which they had a contractual right to do.
Finally, de la Huerta did not prove that she had suffered emotional distress as a result of the dubbing. She did not offer proof that the production company had intentionally breached her contract with the intent or knowledge that the breach would cause here “severe, unmitigable harm in the form of mental anguish.” She also did not offer any proof of actual emotional distress that was caused by watching the film.
So, divas, get a grip.