For 300 producer Gianni Nunnari, the decision to sue former longtime employer Vittorio Cecchi Gori for getting axed in 2008 has so far proven as ill-advised as sending 300 Spartans to hold off the entire Persian army at Thermopylae.
A rather stunning legal judgment was rendered last week by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Amy D. Hogue. Not only did she not embrace Nunnari’s assertion that he’d been wronged to the tune of $2.5 million when Cecchi Gori showed up unannounced in his L.A. offices and cleaned house., closing the Cecchi Gori Pictures outpost and firing the staff. In a tentative decision, the judge put Nunnari on the hook for nearly $14 million, for breaching his fiduciary duties as the head of VCG’s Hollywood operations, and funneling choice film projects and fees to his own Hollywood Gang Productions shingle. The judge’s award to CGP amounts to the fees earned on several recent films: $8.6 million for 300, $3.26 million for Silence (the film Martin Scorsese has been tied to for over a decade), $1.35 million on Everybody’s Fine, and $700,000 for Immortals, the Tarsem Singh-directed Greek gods saga which gets released in November. Cecchi Gori also gets interest of 7% and the court ordered the construction of a trust that will disperse future revenues.
A spokesman for Nunnari stressed this was an interim decision, and indicated that an appeal is inevitable. Still, how did two former close friends fall out so sensationally? Well, Judge Hogue was kind enough to lay it out in spectacularly detailed 44-page decision that someone should option for a miniseries. Two up and coming Italian executives, Cecchi Gori and Nunnari, grew up alongside one another working for Italian film mogul Mario Cecchi Gori (Vittorio’s father, who promised Nunnari’s own dying father he’d take care of his son). Vittorio Cecchi Gori stayed in Italy to build an empire as a supplier of films and TV shows, owning a network and a soccer team. Nunnari taught himself English and headed to America to run a Hollywood outpost for CGP, to acquire Italian rights for Hollywood films, and develop American films. Through his Hollywood Gang Productions, Nunnari has become well established as a producer of some of Hollywood’s biggest projects, including 300 and The Immortals.
Their relationship frayed over more than two decades together and crashed in April, 2008, when Cecchi Gori visited the company’s L.A. office unannounced, determined that Nunnari was using his resources to generate film properties and fees for his own Hollywood Gang holding company. Cecchi Gori shut the office down and fired most of the employees. Nunnari sued. Surprisingly, the judge was moved most by Cecchi Gori’s cross-complaint and testimony which played out in court from May 24 to July 2. Among other things, the judge saw merit to Cecchi Gori’s claim that because he didn’t speak English and trusted his L.A.-based executive, Nunnari was able to have film titles CGP developed (some under Cecchi Gori’s 1990s partnership with current Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi) to be transferred to Hollywood Gang. “VCG does not speak English and his trust in Nunnari was so unquestioning that, at Nunnari’s request, he apparently signed his name on agreements and memoranda without translating or understanding them,” Judge Hogue wrote. “VCG’s employees in Rome were similarly trusting of Nunnari. Over the years, they promptly paid and rarely questioned Nunnari’s requests for reimbursement of expenses for travel and entertainment on the assumption that they were incurred for legitimate CGP…expenses.”
On the surface, it seems incredible that Cecchi Gori couldn’t see Nunnari flourishing in his side job. The office wasn’t shuttered until 2008, while and 300 was released and became a smash in 2006 (Cecchi Gori even sent Nunnari a congratulatory telegram). Nunnari’s argument seems plausible that the film properties weren’t important to Cecchi Gori, who abandoned his costly film production and financing program in the 1990s because there was more money to be made distributing TV programs in Italy. Still, the judge noted that when Nunnari made a Disney deal for one property, Ferrari, he included a side deal for Hollywood Gang that was more lucrative than the one for rights owner CGP. The judge also singled out Silence as evidence that the best properties ended up with Nunnari. CGP acquired the Shusaku Endo novel in 1998 with Scorsese attached, but somehow the title transferred to Nunnari in 2001, in an 18-month option deal that cost $5000 against a purchase price of $786,000. When Scorsese reneged on a promise to direct Silence as his next project after Kundun, Nunnari sued for breach of contract. The director took over the obligation to pay CGP the $786,000 purchase price, and paid Nunnari an extra $1 million. Later, when Scorsese again balked on directing Silence, Nunnari got millions more, and producing credit on the Oscar-winning The Departed as well as Shutter Island. “Nunnari turned a $5000 ‘investment’…into a return of $1,786,000 two years later plus a commitment, from Scorsese, to direct Silence after Aviator and the right to producer fees and other compensation when Silence was ultimately produced,” wrote Judge Hogue. “CGP receive nothing for its employees’ work developing the project (or their efforts on HGP’s behalf). [Cecchi Gori] only managed to recoup $786,000—the amount of its investment in the project without interest.”
The judge mentions several times how Cecchi Gori’s own company has struggled. But the overriding factor, wrote the judge, is that CGP proved that Nunnari “breached fiduciary duties, and engaged in concealment and constructive fraud,” because he operated in dual roles as the officer of CGP and as a creative producer under his Hollywood Gang Productions banner. Even when, in the case of 300, Nunnari sent Cecchi Gori a copy of the Frank Miller graphic novel and told him he would shop it, the judge felt Nunnari owed more than what he shared with his former pal.
Each side has until September 15 to argue the findings, or make proposals for a settlement. If they don’t, the judgment becomes permanent the following day. I suspect we haven’t heard the last out of Nunnari’s side.