A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that movie studios can be sued under false advertising laws if they release misleading movie trailers.
US District Judge Stephen Wilson has issued a ruling in a case involving the 2019 film “Yesterday,” about a world without the Beatles.
Two fans of Ana de Armas sued in January, claiming they had rented the movie after watching de Armas in the trailer, only to discover she had been left out of the final film.
Universal sought to get rid of the lawsuit, arguing that movie trailers deserve broad First Amendment protection. The studio’s lawyers argued that the trailer is an “expressive artwork” that tells a three-minute story that conveys the theme of the film, and therefore should be considered “non-commercial speech”.
But Wilson rejected that argument, finding the trailer to be commercial speech and subject to California’s false advertising law and the state’s unfair competition law.
“Universal is correct that the trailer involves some creativity and editorial appreciation, but that creativity does not outweigh the commercial nature of the trailer,” Wilson wrote. “A trailer is, in essence, an advertisement designed to sell a movie by providing consumers with a preview of the movie.”
Attorneys for Universal argued in their briefing on the case that movie trailers have long included clips that do not appear in the final film. They cited “Jurassic Park” (another Universal film), which had a trailer consisting entirely of footage not found in the film.
Universal also argued that labeling trailers as “commercial letter” could open the door to a raft of lawsuits from dissatisfied moviegoers, who could make a personal claim that the film does not live up to the expectations created by the trailer.
At the plaintiffs’ contemplation, the trailer would be stripped of its full First Amendment protections and subject to onerous litigation any time a viewer claims to be disappointed about whether and how much a person or scene they saw in the trailer was in the final film; The film fit the kind of genre they claimed to expect; or any unlimited number of disappointments a viewer could claim,” the studio’s lawyers argued.
Wilson sought to address this concern, saying that the false advertising law only applies when a “significant portion” of “reasonable consumers” can be misled.
“The court’s decision is limited to whether or not she is an actress or scene in the film, and nothing else,” the judge wrote, asserting that based on the “Yesterday” trailer, viewers would have been reasonable to expect de Armas to have a significant role in the film.
De Armas was originally supposed to appear as a love interest for the film’s protagonist, played by Himesh Patel. Patel’s character was supposed to meet her on the set of James Corden’s talk show, where Patel serenades her with the Beatles’ “Something”.
Screenwriter Richard Curtis explained that de Armas was cut because audiences didn’t like the idea of Patel’s character deviating from his primary love interests, played by Lily James.
The plaintiffs, Connor Wolfe of Maryland and Peter Michael Rosa of San Diego County, California, paid $3.99 to rent “Yesterday” on Amazon Prime. They are seeking at least $5 million as representatives of a class of movie clients.
The case will now move on to the discovery and movement to obtain a class certificate.
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