I was working on a case involving some guy who funded Steven Spielberg’s first movie. Spielberg had granted him a loose option for another film, but then got famous and didn’t want to do it. Instead, he invested in this guy’s donut shop, which failed. One of the issues was Spielberg’s age when he granted the option – he said he was under 21, so the option would be invalid, but he really was over 21, so it was valid after all, but then maybe he had validly revoked it, too. Interesting albeit arcane stuff.
The deposition was difficult to schedule. Spielberg was off making a movie. He wasn’t knowledgeable as to specific details regarding his investments. There’s a lot of case law precedent saying you can’t harass the president of a company by trying to take his deposition, when he doesn’t really know what’s going on at the lower management levels of the company. Of course, there’s authority the other way, too – one of my favorites is the Howard Hughes case, when he was so obstinate in refusing to be deposed, in 1963 a judge entered a default judgment against him, ultimately costing $145 million, Barlett, D. & Steele, J., Empire – The Life, Legend and Madness of Howard Hughes 272 (1979); Drosnin, M., Citizen Hughes 49 (1985); Higham, C., Howard Hughes – The Secret Life 205 (1993); Brown, P & Broeske, P., Howard Hughes – The Untold Story 327 (1996). OK, enough with the Howard Hughes cites, I do have a peculiar interest in him because he was so crazy, definitely a tale for another day.
There probably were half a dozen people at the deposition, a court reporter, a videographer, and other assorted hangers-on. There were several undercurrent issues, the main one of which was “trust.” While the case ostensibly was about simple (alleged) breaches of contract, somehow it got converted into one involving “moral obligations” and “betrayal.” Each of the parties also was attempting to characterize the other as a “fiduciary,” hoping this would import a more onerous standard of duty.
I remember one of the questions was, “Is there ever a circumstance when one is justified in not performing a legal obligation?” Spielberg said, “yes,” which lead to the next question: “Is it your view, then, all contracts only are conditionally enforceable, depending upon the circumstances?” Since the donut shop evidently was not successful, another line of questions had to do with Spielberg’s tolerance for risk in his investments. “The film business is pretty risky, isn’t it?” “It’s entirely possible to lose all of one’s investment, right?” “When structuring movie deals, don’t you typically use other people’s money?” Etc.
I thought Spielberg was pretty impressive. He didn’t have much specific knowledge regarding his investment in the donut shop. It was a long time ago, it wasn’t material, and his people handled it for him. Even though many of the questions presented what might be characterized as a slippery slope, he navigated them with aplomb and good humor in an idiom obviously not his milieu (to borrow a bunch of filmy-type terms). My overriding impression was, Spielberg is a famous director worth millions of dollars, and here he was testifying about a donut shop, which piqued my sense of post-modern absurdity. There’s an old adage in the halls of academia, the more time people spend arguing about something, the less significant it probably is.
I did ask him what was his favorite type of donut, though I can’t recall the answer!