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Moviegoers to settle with studio after being lured by phony critic

By Emanuella Grinberg
Court TV

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Sony Corporation

LOS ANGELES, California (Court TV) -- A group of disgruntled moviegoers will settle their suit out of court against a nonexistent film critic, whose glowing reviews of mediocre films prompted a class-action suit alleging filmgoers had been "tricked" into theaters.

"Pending court approval, we are in the process of drawing up a settlement," said Norman Blumenthal, a lawyer for the plaintiffs against Sony Pictures Entertainment, whose subsidiary, Columbia Pictures, distributed the films and the advertisements.

Plaintiffs Omar Rezec and Ann Belknap filed the inital suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court in the summer of 2001, after Newsweek reporter John Horn revealed that the man who proclaimed actor Heath Ledger "this year's hottest new star" was in fact no man at all.

News of a settlement comes on the heels of a California Court of Appeals decision last Thursday that quashed a motion Sony filed to block the suit.

The justices' 2-1 ruling upheld a lower court decision that rejected Sony's claim that its use of fictitious critic, David Manning, was protected by free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The justices agreed that Sony's advertisements did not enjoy First Amendment protection because they constituted commercial speech.

"The studio was in the business of marketing films, and the advertisements were meant to reach potential moviegoers," Justices Vaino Spencer and Robert Mallano noted in their majority decision. "The fact that the films were noncommercial speech did not mean that the label also applied to the advertisements."

Filed on the behalf of "all consumers nationwide who paid to see any movie" on Manning's recommendation, the class-action suit sought injunctive relief, restitution, and "complete disgorgement of [Sony's] ill-gotten gains" -- for Sony to make restitution to everyone who bought a ticket to the falsely advertised movies.

In January 2002, the plaintiffs offered to settle the suit under terms that the company set up a $4.5 million fund to reimburse filmgoers who, like Rezec and Belknap, believed they were misled by Manning's reviews into seeing the films. Sony rejected that offer.

A lawyer for Sony Pictures, Marvin Putnam, confirmed that no terms of settlement yet have been agreed upon.

Fake critic David Manning first surfaced in 2000 as the creation of Sony marketing executive Matthew Cramer of Ridgefield, Connecticut, who named the phony pundit after an old friend and son of former Ridgefield mayor, Susan Manning.

Cramer attributed the writer's enthusiastic rants for such forgettable fare as Vertical Limit and The Animal to his hometown paper, the Ridgefield Press.

Manning's laudatory remarks for other films such as Hollow Man ? "one hell of a scary ride" -- and The Animal -- "the producing team of 'Big Daddy' has delivered another winner" -- appeared in newspapers throughout the nation until Newsweek uncovered the flap.

"Obviously, he never wrote a word for us," said Jack Sanders, executive editor of the Ridgefield Press. "We're a one-town newspaper, which has very little touch with Hollywood."

When the scandal was revealed, the Ridgefield Press demanded only an apology from Sony, which it got.

"We're not interested in grubbing money," Sanders said. "A lot of people suggested we sue, but we're not that kind of people. We just hope they don't subpoena us to fly out and testify, unless they're going to pay for transportation."

Claiming it was unaware of the marketing ploy, Sony immediately pulled the ads and suspended Manning's creator and his supervisor, Josh Goldstine. In 2003, Sony also paid the state of Connecticut $325,000 in fines following Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's investigation into Sony's alleged fraudulent marketing practices.

The hoopla also inspired a number of copycat Web sites claiming to be the "real" platform for David Manning, while others still are devoted to ridiculing the preposterous nature of the scandal.

The plaintiffs' decision to stay out of court likely comes as a relief to dissenting Justice Reuben Ortega, who ridiculed the suit in his written opinion, calling it the "most frivolous case with which I have ever had to deal."

Full of sarcasm, he continued, "Imagine the great contribution this case will make to our quality of life and to justice in America. Why, it may eventually protect us all from war, pestilence, famine and death. A new day will dawn from which time no one will ever again be fooled by a promotion touting a movie as the greatest artistic accomplishment of the ages."

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