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Story behind CCF's prevention of viewing/selling Your Mommy Kills Animals

The CCF has prevented the film's widespread release by threatening Amazon and other distributors with litigation if they sell the documentary on the animal activist movement. Luckily, Tower.com currently sells the DVD, so Joel and I snapped up a copy before it goes extinct.

The film had extensive discussion of the SHAC-7 trial, with significant interviews with several of the SHAC 7 defendants. The documentary didn't talk about the food industry, except when a few of the interviewees mentioned it. Instead, it focused on SHAC-7, animal testing, and the fur industry -- typical issues related to ALF-style animal activism.

The film also had a section bashing PETA, focusing mainly on the North Carolina animal euthanization fiasco and on their reliance on movie stars as spokespersons. The film had another section bashing HSUS about their efforts to save animals during Katrina (and their attendant efforts to fundraise during the aftermath of Katrina). When it came to more grassroots-focused animal activism, however, the film was quite sympathetic, and even the ALF came off pretty well, in my opinion.

The only anti-animal person interviewed in the film was the Center for Consumer Freedom's David Martosko. He got a ton of screen time, so they certainly can't be complaining about a lack of CCF presence in the film. The director doesn't even try to make him look stupid--his role as an anti-animal lobbyist effectively discredits all his tsk-tsking about animal rights "hypocrisy."

Despite its rather obvious attempt to blackball PETA and HSUS (who, like any large organization, are no angels, don't get me wrong, but the negative focus on these two groups seemed a little forced in light of the rest of the film, particularly the part about HSUS), the documentary gave a fairly even-handed portrayal of the animal activist movement in general.

While that even-handedness may be enough to convince the CCF that the film should be suppressed, I was curious about whether there was anything else behind the CCF's rather drastic actions.

That's where the intrigue begins.

On October 19, 2007, Judge T.S. Ellis III in the Eastern District of Virginia decided Berman v. Johnson. In this case, Richard Berman, the head of CCF, sued Curt Johnson, the director of Your Mommy Kills Animals.

According to the facts of the case, in 2005, Johnson and Maura Flynn, another movie producer, decided to direct and produce two movies, one on smoking issues and one on "PETA and the animal rights movement." Flynn would be primarily responsible for the smoking movie, and Johnson would be responsible for the animal rights film. (Flynn's husband is a former employee of Berman's "public affairs firm," Berman and Co.) In the fall of 2005, Johnson went to D.C. to meet with Flynn and Berman to discuss the possibility of Berman investing in the PETA/animal rights film. Berman "committed $300,000 to the production of YMKA, and production on the film began."

During the production of the two movies, Flynn and Johnson helped each other with their movies, but at some point in 2006, Johnson told Flynn not to travel with the YMKA crew "because potential interview subjects had become aware of Flynn's connection through her husband to Berman and Company and the CCF, and her presence would make them less willing to participate in YMKA."

In the late spring and summer of 2006, Johnson rejected most of Flynn's "editorial suggestions" for the animal rights film and "ultimately ceased all communication with her." Johnson then began "publicly screening a substantially complete version of the film and contacted various film festivals and distribution companies regarding the general release of the film."

The film apparently wasn't what Berman or Flynn had expected. "[T]he great majority of the film is not directed to PETA, contrary to the treatment prepared by Flynn and contrary to the understanding Berman testified he had with Johnson." Berman was mad that the majority of the film was focused on the SHAC-7, "particularly given Johnson's portrayal of the SHAC-7 as champions of free speech."

In his opinion, the judge had to decide Flynn's request to be declared joint author of YMKA and Berman's request that he be declared the sole promoter of YMKA.

The judge granted Flynn's request to be a joint author "with all attendant rights and benefits," since she was, by agreement, supposed to be involved in the production of the film, and Johnson cut off her involvement. As a joint author, she can assign the movie or grant non-exclusive licenses, and that she can veto any effort by Johnson to grant an exclusive license. She also gets money from every license Johnson makes.

The judge didn't grant Berman's request to be the exclusive promoter of YMKA. In an earlier jury trial in this case, Berman had been awarded $360,000 for breach of contract (since the YMKA that was actually made was very different from the YMKA that they'd agreed to produce). The judge found that the monetary award had "made him whole" already, and if he got the promotional rights as well, he would be doubly compensated, which isn't allowed.

If Berman had been granted exclusive promotional rights, he probably would have just buried the movie by not having it shown at theaters or sold as a DVD. Since he didn't get exclusive promotional rights, he's trying to bury the movie in another way -- by threatening to sue distributors.

I don't know what legal theories Berman has behind the threats. If I had to guess, he might be saying that the movie was produced with stolen money, or that it was made fraudulently, or that it advocates terrorism -- none of which seems like a particularly strong claim to me.

This interesting story also sheds some light on the odd anti-PETA and anti-HSUS segments of the movie -- perhaps Johnson was trying to incorporate some of Berman's and Flynn's demands into the film so that they wouldn't sue him. And it also possibly explains why PETA and HSUS refused to be interviewed for the film -- they might have been the "potential interview subjects" who had gotten wind of Berman's involvement with the film. The documentary (and PETA and HSUS) would have benefited from an interview with PETA and HSUS spokespersons, but, if the Berman connection is the reason why they reneged on their original agreement to be interviewed, that's an understandable reaction. And it may explain the weird title, taken from one of PETA's more off-putting publications that the CCF loves to talk about -- perhaps the title was set before Johnson had his apparent change of heart.

So I think that's the story behind Your Mommy Kills Animals -- it started life as a PETA hit piece, but it grew up to be an eloquent defender of free speech and animal rights

Shannon Morgan


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