An arbitrator at the Independent Film and Television Alliance (IFTA) has ruled on a long-running legal battle between the filmmakers behind The Queen of Versailles (pictured) and one of the subjects of the documentary, and has sided with the filmmakers.
David Siegel and his property firm Westgates Resorts took issue with the documentary, just prior to its 2012 world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
The film, made by director Lauren Greenfield and producer Frank Evers, follows Siegel and his wife Jackie as they attempted to build the largest house in America – a 90,000 square foot home in Flordia – and documents the effects the economic downturn has on their plans. The doc was released theatrically in the U.S. by Magnolia, and grossed US$2.4 million at the box office.
Siegel claimed that the film, and the synopsis for the film provided by the Sundance Film Festival, was defamatory, taking umbrage with the description of the documentary as being a “rags-to-riches-to-rags” story, among other things.
Siegel sought to fight his defamation claim in federal court, but in January 2013 a judge ruled that Greenfield had attained a proper release form during the making of the film and that, as such, the matter must be resolved through arbitration.
The conflict was then turned over to the IFTA, which heard testimony in July last year and issued its findings last Thursday (March 13).
The IFTA stated that “the Arbitrator, having viewed the supposedly egregious portions of the motion picture numerous times, simply does not find that any of the content of the motion picture was false.
“There is nothing taken away by the view of the motion picture that is inconsistent with the fundamental reality that the global recession created a crisis for Westgate causing it to have to reluctantly give up its interest in PH Towers.
“To a great extent, this is derived from the words of David, Jackie and Richard Siegel themselves.”
The arbitrator also rejected a claim that Siegel’s business had been hurt by the documentary.
“Westgate failed to establish that it was damaged by any of the content of the Motion Picture,” the IFTA ruled. “In fact… Westgate’s business has apparently thrived as never before since the release of the Motion Picture.”
In addition to ruling in favor of the filmmakers, the IFTA also instructed Siegel and Westgate to pay a significant portion of the filmmakers’ legal costs – but not the full costs claimed by the filmmakers.
In the ruling, the IFTA rejected the filmmakers’ claim for reimbursement of “well over $1 million” in legal fees, but ruled that they should be awarded $750,000. The ruling also noted that the filmmakers had errors and omission insurance (E&O), which will have covered some or all of the cost of the defense.
In a statement, Martin Garbus of Eaton & Van Winkle – an attorney who represented Greenfield, Evers and their Greenfield/Evers LLC – welcomed the IFTA’s ruling.
“This is a wonderful triumph for writers, directors, filmmakers, authors and the First Amendment,” Garbus said. “It gives full Constitutional protection to artists to tell the story as they see fit.”
Siegel’s attorneys did not respond to a request for comment at press time, and it is unclear at present whether he or Westgate will attempt to pursue any further legal action against the filmmakers.