EXCLUSIVE: Pulling together life rights deals to make fact-based feature films can be insaaaaaaaaaaane. In fact, rights problems have essentially killed Danny DeVito’s feature film about the ex-consumer electronics king who coined that phrase in manic commercials that fueled the 70s rise of Eddie Antar’s Crazy Eddie store chain across the East Coast. DeVito planned to direct and produce Crazy Eddie, but he said the project could not be made because of a life rights deal he made with Antar.
Rights wrangling is always tricky. Paramount Pictures and Brad Pitt’s Plan B are discovering this now, after acquiring the Michael Lewis book The Big Short and finding that some of the Wall Street characters reluctant to participate. Columbia Pictures execs are holding their breaths this week as Major League Baseball reviews the shooting draft to decide whether to play ball on another Lewis book-to-movie adaptation, Moneyball, which will determine if the film can use uniform logos and shoot in ballparks. A recent DreamWorks announcement of a Martin Luther King feature gained prestige because his estate was involved, until it surfaced that his heirs are in a king-sized squabble. Morgan Creek’s attempt to make a film on slain hip hop star Tupac Shakur has so far generated only legal briefs after the film company and Shakur’s mother sued each other. The list goes on and on.
DeVito hopes to pick up the pieces of Crazy Eddie, a drama that was to be written by 21 scribe Peter Steinfeld, with both producing. Right now the project is in shambles, all because they included the subject in a rights deal so he’d tell his story. DeVito grew up in New Jersey, and so he was well aware of Antar when Steinfeld suggested the film about the man who pioneered the discount consumer electronics chain. Crazy Eddie grew to 43 outlets, best remembered for those zany TV ads with the manic pitchman who promised prices so low they were “insaaaaaaaaaaane!” Rolling in cash, Antar took the company public, skimmed money, falsified inventory, and then fled to Israel when the SEC charged him with stock fraud. He was extradited, served a six-year prison stretch and was ordered to pay $150 million in fines. DeVito saw the rags to riches to rags story as perfect for a film.
“It was all going well until we got a call from some big-time lawyer who represented a lot of people who were hurt by Eddie,” DeVito said. “He painted him as the Bernie Madoff of his generation and said that if Eddie is involved in any way, we’re going to put liens on the movie. I didn’t like the sound of that at all. This put a big, wet blanket over the picture. What it boiled down to is, if Eddie is involved at all, then we’re in trouble.”
DeVito isn’t sure if the project will move forward now, but said the only option he and Steinfeld had was to make “a hard call,” and cut ties completely with Antar, which they’ve done over the last few months.
“I’m not sure there were papers signed, it was more, `we’ll do this together and we won’t burn you,'” DeVito said. “Bottom line, we had to divorce from a person who was convicted of a felony. He cannot benefit from the project, not while there are the moms and pops of the world who were bilked by him.”
DeVito said Antar was “hurt” by that news; he’s got little else going on. “He’s gone through tough times, and he’s not the aggressive tough guy they paint him to be,” De Vito said. “He’s in his 70s and the past has come back to bite us all in the ass. Peter and I told him we think there is a terrific story there, but we can’t do it with you involved, in any way. We’ve taken a breather, but we’re figuring out how to jump back in. This put a big road block in our way. We’d worked hard, but we have to look at the other side. This guy was convicted of running away with a lot of people’s money.”
Turns out the saner route would have been going around Antar, since there has been plenty written about him. But there is a family dynamic that isn’t common knowledge and somewhat explains Antar’s fall. And doing an unauthorized film at its subject’s expense isn’t DeVito’s style: he once backed out of directing an HBO telepic about a power struggle over swampland between Donald Trump and Steve Wynn, because it was clear to him neither casino mogul wanted it to happen.
“As I look at the ‘Crazy Eddie’ thing in hindsight, we might have been better off if we hadn’t had contact, but there’s a thing inside you as a filmmaker where you don’t want to go around anyone as important as the main character,” said DeVito, who just began the sixth season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.