Amazon used AI to replicate actors’ voices during strike, lawsuit alleges

Meg James | (TNS) Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Tensions over the upcoming “Road House” movie remake, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, are flaring again with the original film’s screenwriter taking a legal swing at Amazon Studios.

On Tuesday, R. Lance Hill, who wrote the screenplay for the 1989 cult movie, sued Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and its parent, Amazon Studios, for copyright infringement, seeking declaratory relief.

Hill, who goes by the pen name David Lee Henry, alleges the Seattle e-commerce giant ignored his ability, under the U.S. Copyright Act, to reclaim the rights for his 1986 screenplay, “Roadhouse,” which spawned the original movie and this year’s reboot, in which Gyllenhaal portrays an ex-UFC fighter who struggles to leave his brawling days behind.

In the lawsuit filed in the U.S. Central District Court in Los Angeles, Hill alleges that he filed the necessary petition with the U.S. Copyright Office in late 2021, requesting the copyright revert back to him when United Artists’ claim was due to expire this past November. United Artists released the original movie, which featured Patrick Swayze.

But Amazon, which owns the “Road House” rights through its acquisition of MGM’s film library, allegedly ignored his copyright claims and plowed ahead — even taking steps to work around the SAG-AFTRA strike — to attempt to finish the movie before the copyright expired, according to the suit.

Amazon “went so far as to take extreme measures to try to meet this November 10, 2023 deadline, at considerable additional cost, including by resorting to the use of AI (artificial intelligence)” during last year’s SAG-AFTRA strike, Hill’s lawsuit claims. He alleges Amazon used AI to “replicate the voices” of the actors in the 2024 remake.

The movie was completed in January — about two months after the copyright deadline, the suit claims.

The lawsuit also alleged that the use of AI to simulate actors’ voices violated provisions in collective bargaining agreements between the major studios, including Amazon, and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, as well as the studio alliance contract with the Directors Guild of America.

A Writers Guild of America supporter pickets near Culver Studios, home of Amazon Studios, in May 2023 in Culver City, California. (Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times/TNS) 

Amazon Studios representatives did not immediately comment on Hill’s suit or its claims.

The suit seeks to block distribution of the film, which is scheduled to become available March 21 on Amazon Prime Video.

The reboot had already stirred controversy. Director Doug Liman has said he’ll boycott the film’s premiere, which is slated to open next month’s South by Southwest Film & TV Festival in Austin, Texas. In an essay published last month by industry site Deadline, Liman expressed dismay that Amazon was sending the movie to its Prime Video streaming platform rather than releasing it widely in theaters.

When Amazon Studios announced the movie in mid-2022, it said the film was greenlit as a streaming title.

In the remake, Gyllenhaal’s character, named Dalton, meets a roadhouse bar owner, played by Jessica Williams (“The Daily Show” and “Shrinking”), who needs a bouncer to protect her Florida Keys haunt from thugs who bring in a character played by real-life mixed martial arts fighter, Conor McGregor.

In the original, Swayze played the muscle-ripped bouncer, also named Dalton, who (mostly) kept order at Double Deuce bar in Missouri.

The behind-the-scenes struggles over “Road House” provide a clear view of the consolidation of Hollywood — and its ramifications. United Artists was formed more than a century ago by a cadre of film luminaries, including Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. MGM bought the storied label in 1981.

In 2006, MGM brought in Tom Cruise and producing partner Paula Wagner in a joint venture to reinvigorate the film label. But the rebooted UA released just two movies, “Lions for Lambs” and “Valkyrie,” before Wagner departed as chief executiveMGM bought back full control of the historic label in 2012 and the assets were included as part of Amazon’s $8.5 billion purchase of MGM — a deal that was completed two years ago following a long regulatory review.

Hill’s suit said that on Nov. 10, 2021, Hill notified United Artists, and its successor companies, alerting them to his plans to recover the copyright to the screenplay — providing the so-called “statutory notice of termination,” per the Copyright Act.

But, the suit said, Amazon would not recognize that Hill had terminated the studio’s ability to exploit the source material.

“Instead, defendants steamrolled ahead with the production of a remake of the 1989 ‘Road House’ film … derived from the screenplay,” the suit said. “Despite the 2024 Remake’s obvious exploitation of the screenplay, defendants did not bother to secure a new license of film and ancillary rights.”

The dispute between Hill and Amazon centers, in large part, on whether Hill wrote the original screenplay “on spec,” with plans to pitch it to movie studios once he finished the script, or if he was under contract to United Artists at the time.

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