Louisiana Record

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Hollywood lawyer: Fate of Barry Seal movie depends on how public a life drug smuggler lived

By Dawn Brotherton | May 13, 2016

BATON ROUGE — Deborah Seal and her children have asked 19th Judicial District Judge Don Johnson to dismiss the lawsuit filed by Lisa Seal Frigon concerning the movie rights to Barry Seal’s life, but according to a Hollywood lawyer the case may come down to whether the court decides if the notorious drug smuggler-turned-informant was truly a public figure. 

In October, Frigon, who is the daughter of Barry Seal and his first wife, filed a motion to block Universal City Studios from going forward with a movie about her father. Frigon administers Seal’s estate and claims that Deborah Seal sold the movie rights to the studio without approval from the estate. Frigon believes that the estate controls the right to use Seal’s name and likeness.

Deborah Seal maintains that they have a right to tell their story without requiring permission of Seal’s estate. Universal has called the $350,000 paid to Deborah Seal and her three children a consulting fee. Deborah Seal was married to Barry Seal at the time of his death.

“(The money) smooths the waters for production,” Brian Walton, a California attorney and expert on Hollywood guilds, told the Louisiana Record. “It’s as much (Deborah Seal’s and her children’s) story as it is his. There really isn’t such a thing as life story rights. It’s a legal conglomeration of different legal theories, such as a right to privacy and right of publicity.”

Barry Seal, who was a former commercial airline pilot, was indicted in 1984 for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 460 pounds of cocaine valued at nearly $170 million. Before Seal was murdered by the Medellín Cartel, he was expected to be a key witness in a case against Pablo Escobar, the Columbian drug lord. 

Tom Cruise is currently portraying Seal in Universal’s depiction of his life as a drug smuggler and DEA informant in Mena, set to be released in 2017.

It’s not the first time Seal has been portrayed in film. In 1991, Dennis Hopper portrayed Seal in the docudrama, Doublecrossed. Seal also had minor roles in TV programs. The key argument with Mena seems to be that Deborah Seal and her children received a payout from Universal.

“In Hollywood, an injunction to halt production would not ever be granted, but this case is a question of state law,” Walton said. 

"Facts which are in public record cannot be copyrighted,” nor does the family hold any rights to these facts, Walton said. Writers can take those items that are publicly known, such as court testimony or news sources, and write about them in fiction or non-fiction.

Walton believes the outcome depends on how public or private the judge believes Seal’s life was, and how the law is interpreted. Filmmakers often make movies about public figures with or without approval.

Barry Seal’s case is thought to have played a part in the Iran Contra Affair, a major scandal in the United States during President Reagan’s administration.

Although Frigon filed to halt production of Mena in October, a picture of Tom Cruise’s portrayal of Seal dated March 28 was posted to the IMDB database. The name of the movie refers to the small town in Arkansas that was Seal’s base of operations. According to IMDB, the movie has an estimated budget of $80 million. 

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