Fragment #36: Suing Spielberg

Twister Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton

In 1998, writer Stephen Kessler sued the makers of Twister (Steven Spielberg, Michael Crichton, Warner Bros and Universal studios), claiming that they had plagiarised his script “Catch the Wind”. At the same time, Dreamworks was being sued by Barbara Chase- Riboud who accused them of borrowing extensively from her novel Echo of Lions in the production of Amistad. Kessler alleged that he sent his script to Spielberg’s agency in 1989, and later found out that it had been adapted by Michael Crichton (who denied ever hearing about Kessler or Catch the Wind) to make Twister. The case went to a US District Court, but Kessler ultimately failed to win any compensation. At one point, Spielberg himself was cross examined, and the text below is extracted from the court transcripts. I wonder if he would still stand by his ruthlessly “pragmatic” assessment of the value of a script to the success of a film. Screenwriters, cinematographers, and composers may want to look away…[Cross-examination by Spielberg's attorney, Stephen H. Rovak.]

Rovak: Mr Spielberg, is character development important to the success and popularity of an action film?

Spielberg: Unfortunately it’s not important, no. Take Jurassic Park – people went to see that movie over and over again because of the dinosaurs, not because the kids had a nice scene where they sat in a tree at night and talked for three minutes.

Rovak: What factors do you think are most important in driving the profit of Twister? What is the first thing?

Spielberg: Well, the first thing is certainly, by a huge percentage, the special effects and the action. The twisters themselves – the twin-sister twisters, the kind of Wizard of Oz-type twister, the white one, the big F5 at the end and all the personalities of the different twisters – these are white people came to see more than anything.

Rovak: What percentage of the profit of this film do you think was derived from the special effects and the action direction? 

Spielberg: I think about 60 per cent.

Rovak: What is the next biggest contributing factor?

Spielberg: I think the next biggest factor is going to have to be Helen Hunt, her performance, her personality. I would come out with Helen about 20 per cent.

Rovak: OK. What about cinematography. Is that a player here? 

Spielberg: No. Cinematography is not a player.

Rovak: Is music a big player?

Spielberg: Well, my personal opinion is that the music in Twister didn’t significantly add anything to the movie because the music, for me, didn’t significantly uplift me or make the action any more exciting.

Rovak: And the sound effects? Were they important? 

Spielberg: Yes. Sound effects were completely important. They did some amazing things creating the sound of the storm. And all the speakers that surrounded you in the theatre. Sound was a big factor.

Rovak: OK. We are at 90 per cent. Now let’s talk about marketing for a moment. How much do you think that contributed? 

Spielberg: How did we get to 90 per cent?

Rovak: Well, we have 60 per cent from the…

Spielberg: We had 60 per cent, I said Helen was 20 and I haven’t yet put a number on…

Rovak: Sound effects. Sorry. How important do you think sound effects were? I added wrong. 

Spielberg: Sound effects would be like 5 per cent.

Rovak: And you said cinematography wasn’t a player.

Spielberg: No.

Rovak: Can you put a percentage on advertising and marketing?

Spielberg: That would have to be a high percentage, like 10 per cent.

Rovak: What about the final script? 

Spielberg: The final script is like 5 per cent.

Rovak: OK. Thank you, Mr Spielberg. 

[Questioning by Stephen Kessler's attorney, Martin M. Green.]

Green: Mr. Spielberg, you were paid $73 million for Twister, weren’t you?

Spielberg: I do not know the exact amount I was paid for Twister.

Green: Does that sound about right? 

Spielberg: I do not know if that sounds about right?

Green: You have no idea how much you were paid? 

Spielberg: I do not have any idea what the exact payment to me was on Twister. I can tell you that I believe it was under that figure and it was over 20…

Green: You believe it was. OK. 

Spielberg: It was under 70 and over 20 million.

Green: Amblin is your company, is it not? 

Spielberg: That’s correct.

Green: Amblin was paid $73 million, was it not? Or close to it? 

Spielberg: You are asking me something I don’t know. You know, Twister is still making money and things are still coming in. I don’t know what the total is.

Green: OK. Now as I understand it, you are allocating only some 5 per cent of the – is it the gross receipts – to the script itself? 

Spielberg: Are you talking about 5 per cent of the money made? It’s 5 per cent of why people went to see the movie, the reason people went to see the movie, the reason they came back week after week to see the movie and told their friends about it. I put the script in the 5 per cent category.

Green: I guess what I was asking is: 5 per cent of what?

Spielberg: Five per cent of 100 per cent of the question I was asked.

Green: OK.

[I found this fragment while clearing out some old files. It was in a cutting from Neon, a now discontinued British film magazine. I remember it fondly. 

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3 thoughts on “Fragment #36: Suing Spielberg

  1. Is this Speilberg’s understanding of why an audience see’s his films, or is it more an understanding of particular films he has made? Speilberg mentions Jurassaic Park in the context of a discussion on Twister. The audience for each becomes interchangeable. But what if Speilberg had referred to Schindler’s List instead? Could he argue that special effects was a 60% contributor in the success and popularity of that film? What emerges is perhaps more a description of particular films Speilberg has made rather than why audiences necessarily see them.

    • It does show the silliness that happens when you try and put a number on which elements of a film attracted audiences. Some things, like big stars, are a safer bet than others when it comes to guaranteeing good box office, but yes, he’s giving a breakdown of Twister’s valuable assets rather than making a general statement of what brings people to the cinema.

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