Producers Of ‘Madame Luna’ Express “Dismay” At Theft Of Project Lawsuit: “Universal Message Is Being Unfairly Tarnished By This Unnecessary Litigation”

EXCLUSIVE: UPDATE 9.30 am, 1/27 PT The producers of Daniel Espinosa’s Italy-set immigration drama Madame Luna have expressed “dismay” at a lawsuit lodged against them by filmmaker Binyam Berhane, who says they misappropriated an original story and material created by him for the film.

The lawsuit filed in L.A. County Superior Court last week is directed at David Herdies at Stockholm-based company Momento Film as well as Los Angeles-based Rhea Films and the Luxembourg-based Hercules Film Fund.

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“It is with great dismay that we read Mr. Berhane’s version of events, which differs drastically from ours. Since a lawsuit has been filed we cannot go into the details of our defenses at this time.  It is with sadness that the universal message of Madame Luna is being unfairly tarnished by this unnecessary litigation,” said Herdies in an emailed response.

Hercules Film Fund and Rhea Films issued a separate joint statement.

“Hercules Film Fund and Rhea Films have a policy of not commenting on pending litigation, and, in any event, have not been served with this lawsuit.  Although Hercules, a Luxembourg entity, provided partial distribution financing to Madame Luna, a European production, neither Hercules nor Rhea has any contractual relationship with the plaintiff, Mr. Berhane,” it read.

“Especially given the importance of the universal message of this film, we hope this matter will get resolved in a timely manner without further distraction from the creative efforts of the filmmakers.”

ORIGINAL 11.28 am PT 1/26 Swedish-Eritrean filmmaker Binyam Berhane has filed a $2 million lawsuit against the producers of Daniel Espinosa’s Italy-set immigration drama Madame Luna ahead of its world premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival this weekend.

Berhane says the movie, inspired by a real-life Eritrean refugee who became a notorious human trafficker operating between Libya and Italy, is based on an original story and research he brought to lead producer David Herdies at his Stockholm-based company Momento Film in 2013.

Filed this week in L.A. County Superior Court, the theft-of-project lawsuit (read it here) also is directed at Luxembourg-based Hercules Film Fund and Los Angeles-based production company Rhea Films, which joined Momento Film in the production.

Berhane’s lawyer Scott Humphrey told Deadline that Momento had entered into option agreements with Berhane to make the Madame Luna project but never exercised the options, instead proceeding to make the feature film with other partners.

“I have no idea if it was intentional or not on their part to not have properly secured Mr. Berhane’s rights in the film prior to the final production of the film, but it clearly violates Mr. Berhane’s legal rights in the project,” Humphrey said. “Defendants are now distributing the film fully aware of Mr. Berhane’s rights as the undisputed originator of the project. Hence, the lawsuit.”

Humphrey is seeking damages on Berhane’s behalf in excess of $2 million on five causes of action spanning theft of the project, breach of contract, using Berhane’s name and likeness without his permission, copyright infringement and fraud.

As per the complaint lodged at the Santa Monica Courthouse: “In addition to being the original sole creator of the project, Berhane developed significant substantive material for the project including but not limited to a treatment, and outline for the project as well as authoring/co-authoring early drafts of the screenplay on which the current film is based.”

The complaint details how Momento initially entered into an option agreement effective November 12, 2013, under which Momento could acquire rights in a documentary.

During the documentary option period, Berhane re-envisioned the story as a narrative feature film, and he and Momento signed a subsequent option agreement for the narrative feature film on November 15, 2014, the suit says.

The complaint says Berhane had entered into the option agreements in the belief that they would develop the project on a collaborative basis.

The respective options expired on December 13, 2015, and February 28, 2017, without Momento exercising them.

“It is uncontested that Momento never exercised the option to acquire the rights for either the documentary or narrative films or acquire the rights to the project,” reads the suit.

“As far as Berhane knew, the project was not moving forward, given that the period for the exercise of the options had both expired by March 2017. … Berhane was thus extremely surprised to receive a call from David Herdies of Momento on August 8, 2022 informing Berhane for the first time that the project had moved forward with Daniel Espinosa as director, and as Berhane would later come to learn that the producers had a screenplay written by Maurizio Braucci,” reads the complaint.

The complaint says that Braucci’s screenplay “revised” and “replaced” the “derivative screenplay” written by Berhane with Palestinian filmmaker and screenwriter Suha Arraf.

“During the August 8, 2022 call, Mr Herdies demanded Berhane assign all his rights to the story and project. Among the terms on offer … was an invitation for Berhane to come to Italy to visit the set.”

The suit continues that Berhane subsequently discovered on his own that the project was not in development, as Herdies had inferred in the August 8 call, but rather nearing completion.

“The producer defendants had nearly completed the film – a project that should have been Berhane’s first feature,” it reads.

The complaint says the producer had continued to use the filmmaker’s name and image to support the production, citing a pitch at the MIA Coproduction market in 2017 and an article in 2022 announcing that Espinosa had boarded the project.

He also was named as the director of the project at a co-production event at the Trieste Film Festival in early 2017, one month before the narrative option expired.

“The exploitation of Berhane’s name and likeness, given his direct Eritrean lineage, lent the project credibility it needed in the current environment,” the suit reads.

It adds that “the theft of Berhane’s project and use of his name and likeness, was particularly ironic, considering the subject matter of the film is about the exploitation of individuals of African descent.”

Following its Rotterdam world premiere in the Limelight section this weekend, Madame Luna heads onto the Göteborg Film Festival next week.

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