UPDATED with Showtime statement. A Wall Street performance coach who specializes in trading psychology is suing the creators of Billions, saying she was the uncredited and uncompensated inspiration for the character Dr. Wendy Rhoades.
Denise Shull has filed a copyright infringement suit in federal district court in New York, claiming that New York Times financial columnist and CNBC Squawk Box co-host Andrew Ross Sorkin “ripped off” her character without paying her or obtaining her permission.
The suit (read it here) also names the show’s two other executive producers, Brian Koppelman and David Levien, Showtime CEO David Nevins and the pay TV network’s corporate parent, CBS. Sorkin referred questions to Showtime.
After initially declining comment, Showtime offered a statement today: “Ms. Shull has cycled through multiple law firms and theories of her supposed case, as part of her repeated failed attempts to force us to engage her as a consultant on our show. We are confident her lawsuit will similarly fail.”
Shull said she came to Sorkin’s attention after publishing Market Mind Games: A Radical Psychology of Investing, Trading and Risk. The 2012 book offers a fictionalized account of her work helping hedge fund portfolio managers recognize how their emotions influence trading decisions. In Market Mind Games, Shull adopts the persona of an in-house performance coach, much like the Rhoades character in Billions.
Sorkin invited Shull to appear on Squawk Box on Aug. 9, 2012, to talk about Market Mind Games. More than a year after her appearance on the CNBC morning show, Shull was interviewed for a story about coaches and psychiatrists who help fund managers make smarter decisions. That article appeared in a special section of the New York Times’ DealBook, an online financial report that Sorkin started.
The journalist, whose book about the 2008 financial crisis Too Big To Fail had been adapted as an HBO film, was working on a television pilot for Billions. The story is loosely based on former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and his legal battles with hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen of S.A.C. Capital Advisors.
On March 13, 2014, Showtime ordered a pilot for the drama Billions from Sorkin and the feature-writing duo of Koppelman and Levien (Oceans Thirteen).
Sorkin emailed Shull in the summer of 2015 to ask for her help in developing the female lead character, whom he described as a hedge fund performance coach who helps traders deal with their emotional baggage, according to the suit.
On Aug. 27, 2015, Sorkin introduced Shull — whom he described as “one of the leading hedge fund performance coaches in the country” — to actress Maggie Siff, who had been cast in the role of Dr. Wendy Rhoades. Siff, in turn, connected Shull to Koppelman, who invited the coach to the writers’ room.
Shull said she met with Koppelman and Levien for about a half hour, talking about how her approach differed from that of noted life coach, Tony Robbins, according to the suit. Siff joined the conversation, and the group spent an hour discussing investing psychology, according to the suit.
The actress said she was reading Market Mind Games, and that it would be “an integral part” to develop the character of Rhoades, the suit alleges.
Within days of that meeting, a Showtime executive contacted Shull to discuss playing a role in promoting Billions, which premiered in January of 2016. Shull believed that the initial meeting was the start of a relationship and that terms would be negotiated later. That never happened.
“After the first episode, people in New York who knew me said, ‘Oh, my god, it’s you,'” Shull said in an interview. A journalist from The New York Observer called, asking to write a profile of the “real-life Wendy.”
Showtime’s attorneys sent Shull a letter in March of 2017, demanding that she stop promoting herself as the inspiration for the character or describing herself as a consultant on the show. That prompted Shull to get a lawyer.
“They had multiple opportunities to do the right thing. Instead, what they’ve done is attempt to pretend that I don’t exist, and my book doesn’t exist,” Shull said. “I think they figured that I wouldn’t or couldn’t stand up to CBS or stand up to Andrew Ross Sorkin.”
In addition to the copyright infringement claim, the suit filed by Shull and her firm, The ReThink Group, alleges vicarious copyright infringement for profiting from a derivative work, a violation of New York civil rights law for using her persona without her consent, deceptive trade practices, and unfair enrichment.
“Billions is a hugely successful television series entering its fourth season with revenues in excess of an amount to be determined at trial,” Shull claims in her suit. “Under these circumstances, equity and good conscience demand that defendants give restitution for their receipt of the benefits that the plaintiffs conferred.”