“Amazing Grace” hit theaters in 2019, some 47 years after Aretha Franklin’s concert footage was shot in a church in South Los Angeles. The road to the screen was fraught with litigation, including a banned premiere at the Telluride Film Festival that was halted by court order.
The film received critical acclaim and was one of the highest-grossing documentaries of the year. But three years after the premiere, the litigation continues.
On Wednesday, producer Alan Elliott filed a lawsuit in New York, accusing indie distributor Neon of botching the film’s premiere and awards campaign.
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Elliott alleged that Neon prematurely announced its acquisition of the film, scaring off potential competitors, and then failed to fulfill its obligations after the deal was closed. The lawsuit alleges that Neon failed to properly market the film, particularly to African-American communities.
“Neon kept the film out of theaters and away from communities where its release would have the greatest impact, and instead licensed the film to streamers such as Hulu,” the suit says. The lawsuit also accuses Neon of deliberately engaging in “Hollywood bookkeeping” and “gross” on the film’s success in order to avoid performance bonuses.
In a statement, Neon denied the allegations.
We are very proud of our campaign and the launch of “Amazing Grace,” said the distributor, “Our goal was and remains to honor the iconic “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin by continuing to release this movie so that the whole community can. enjoy his raw and timeless talent. At this time we will refrain from commenting on this meritless and baseless lawsuit, and we look forward to protecting the quality of our work and our reputation.”
Sydney Pollack shot the film in 1972 at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. But technical problems in synchronizing the sound with the image caused it to be shelved for years. Elliott, described in the lawsuit as a “longtime fan” of Franklin, managed to rescue the film, buying the rights and overseeing the film’s completion. Legal disputes with Franklin and his family were not resolved until after his death in 2018.
That fall, Elliott announced that he would premiere the film at New York’s DOC festival, along with a week of screenings in New York and Los Angeles, before a general release in the spring of 2019. At the time, he said agents and publicists he was told. it would be better to wait a year, to give a distributor the opportunity to run a multi-million dollar prize campaign.
But he said he thought the film could compete in the documentary category – and best picture – on word of mouth alone.
The film was not nominated for best documentary – “Free Solo” won that year – and was not nominated for best picture. However, he received nominations at several film festivals and won an NAACP Image Award.
In the lawsuit, Elliott accuses Neon of “abandoning all efforts to promote the film’s run at the awards, even though the film was widely regarded as an Oscar contender, and a favorite, in its category.” He also claims that Neon did not submit the film for consideration at the awards.
The following year, Neon released “Honeyland,” which was nominated for an Oscar for best documentary and best international feature, and “Parasite,” which won best picture and three other Oscars. Later, Neon released the Oscar-nominated films “Flee” and “The Worst Person in the World” and is considering selling them.