“Amazing Grace” arrived in theaters in 2019, some 47 years after the Aretha Franklin concert film was shot in a South L.A. church. The path to the screen was strewn with litigation — including an aborted premiere at the Telluride Film Festival that was halted by an injunction.
The film won raves from critics and was one of the year’s top grossing documentaries. But three years after its release, the litigation goes on.
On Wednesday, producer Alan Elliott filed suit in New York, accusing indie distributor Neon of botching the film’s release and awards campaign.
Elliott alleges that Neon prematurely announced it had acquired the film, scaring off potential rivals, and then failed to live up to its obligations once the deal was done. The suit alleges that Neon failed to properly market the film, particularly in African American communities.
“Neon kept the Picture out of theaters and away from the communities where its release would be most impactful, and instead licensed the Picture to streamers such as Hulu,” the lawsuit alleges. The suit also accuses Neon of engaging in “Hollywood accounting” and of deliberately “kneecapping” the film’s success in order to avoid paying out performance bonuses.
In a statement, Neon denied the allegations.
“We are extremely proud of the campaign and release we’ve forged for ‘Amazing Grace,’” the distributor said. “Our goal was and remains to honor the iconic, ‘Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin by continuing to make this film as widely available as possible for all audiences to enjoy her raw, timeless talent. At this time we will refrain from making any comment on this meritless and baseless claim, and look forward to defending our quality of work and reputation.”
Sydney Pollack shot the film in 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. But technical problems with syncing the sound to the picture caused it to be shelved for decades. Elliott, described in the suit as a “longtime admirer” of Franklin’s, ultimately rescued the footage, acquired the rights and oversaw the completion of the film. Legal wrangling with Franklin and her family was not resolved until after her death in 2018.
That fall, Elliott announced that he would premiere the film at the DOC NYC festival, along with week-long Oscar-qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles ahead of a general release in the spring of 2019. At the time, he said he’d been told by agents and publicists that it might be better to wait a year, to give a distributor the chance to do a multimillion dollar awards campaign.
But he said he thought the film could contend in the documentary category — and for best picture — on just word of mouth.
The film was not nominated for best documentary — “Free Solo” won that year — nor was it nominated for best picture. It did receive nominations at a number of film festivals, and won an NAACP Image Award.
In the lawsuit, Elliott accuses Neon of having “abandoned any effort to promote the Picture’s awards run, despite the fact that the Picture was widely considered an Oscar contender, and heavy favorite, in its category.” The suit also claims that Neon failed to submit the film for awards consideration.
The following year, Neon released “Honeyland,” which was nominated for the Academy Award for best documentary and best international feature, and “Parasite,” which won best picture and three other Oscars. More recently, Neon released the Oscar contenders “Flee” and “The Worst Person in the World.” The company is now exploring a sale.