Closure for ‘Margaret’ at last as legal tussle finally ends

Any readers who have been with us since 2011 (when it topped Kris' Top 10 list and nearly did mine) will know that we at In Contention are paid-up members of Team “Margaret” — the brilliant, troubled Kenneth Lonergan drama that trickled into theaters three years ago, six years after it began production.

Critical acclaim (including a Best Actress win from the London Film Critics' Circle), social-media campaigning and the eventual DVD release of Lonergan's own cut marked a tentatively happy ending for a film plagued by post-production disputes. But its legal problems only ended this year, as producer and financier Gary Gilbert made a request for his lawsuit against Lonergan to be dismissed.

The Hollywood Reporter offers a fairly detailed breakdown of the misbegotten case's history. In a nutshell, things kicked off when Fox Searchlight billed Gilbert's company, Camelot Pictures, for $6.2 million in 2008, after accepting Lonergan's already long-delayed edit; when Gilbert didn't pay up, they sued him for breaking his co-financing commitment. Gilbert followed up with counterclaims against Searchlight and Lonergan, and on it went for six years.

Even after the release of the film, Gilbert continued to chase Lonergan for breach of directorial contract, demanding over $8 million in damages and claiming in a March 2013 deposition that the director “did not promote the film any way, shape or form.” (Funny, I have a 2012 festival interview piece that suggests otherwise, one that came six months after the director spoke to Kris at length about the film, and we're hardly alone in that.) Quietly, things went to trial last June, with Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo and Martin Scorsese among the big names called to testify by Lonergan's team.

The settlement doesn't require any immediate payment from Lonergan; rather, he'll be required to pay Gilbert 5% of any future studio screenwriting assignment, to a maximum of $50,000. That represents a sizable win for Lonergan and “Margaret,” now out of the woods in all senses. Lonergan's lawyer Matt Rosengart, who described accusations against his client as “vicious and unfair,” states: “After five years of expensive and highly contentious litigation, the plaintiff suddenly dropped all of his claims in the middle of the trial, without any guarantee of ever receiving a dime … Plaintiff's case will likely go down as one of the biggest debacles in recent Hollywood litigation.”

With any luck, this means that Lonergan is now free to pursue other projects — it'd be a shame (albeit an understandable one) if this whole painful rigmarole discouraged him from directing another film. It was reported last year that he would write a TV miniseries adaptation of E.M. Forster's “Howards End,” previously (and immaculately) filmed to Oscar-winning effect by the Merchant-Ivory collective. That's an interesting prospect, but I'm keen to see what original ideas he still has up his sleeve. Few have started their directing careers with two films as exquisitely conceived as “You Can Count on Me” and “Margaret,” after all.

Anyway, all's well that end's well. More or less. Go check out “Margaret” if you haven't yet. It's a film worth fighting over.