Comparing VH1's TLC Biopic to 'Selma,' Viacom Wants $40M Defamation Suit Dismissed
Viacom argues a judge must analyze TLC founder Perri "Pebbles" Reid's complaint in the context of a docudrama.
On Wednesday, Viacom made a big effort to have a Georgia federal court reject a $40 million defamation lawsuit brought by TLC founder and former manager Perri "Pebbles" Reid over VH1's Crazysexycool: The TLC Story. The media giant has dumped a treasure trove of information about the successful R&B group including depositions with the group's members and advisors, publishing contracts, past settlement agreements, 25-year-old letters, old news articles, attorney notes during the making of the film, raw footage and more.
All these exhibits are in support of various reasons given why Crazysexycool: The TLC Story doesn't rise to defamation when matched against the factual record about the group featuring Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas whose hits included "Creep" and "Waterfalls." A Viacom memorandum even goes so far as to imply some larger stakes.
"Consistent with the docudrama genre — which includes Selma, The Social Network, Ray, Walk the Line, What's Love Got To Do With It?, and many others — the Movie revisits TLC's well-known and widely-reported story," states the memo. "From the first line of the film — 'Here's what I remember' — it is a story told from the perspective of the two surviving members of TLC, who produced and cooperated fully in the development of the Movie. The Movie employs actresses, creates dialogue, telescopes events, and uses composite characters, all while accurately maintaining the essence of TLC's story."
Pebbles filed her lawsuit in April 2014, about six months after Crazysexycool premiered. She objects to being portrayed as a "conniving and dishonest business woman who hoodwinked three innocent girls and exploited their talent for her own personal gain."
Specifically, Pebbles points to scenes and statements that she says conveyed the idea she controlled TLC's attorneys and accountants, pressured TLC members to sign contracts without reading, was the one to decide to remove Chilli from TLC, asked T-Boz to put money before her health, was involved in the decision by Chilli to have an abortion, paid members only $25 per week and more.
Viacom comes back with its own statement of facts, heavily informed by recent testimony from nearly everyone involved in TLC (Lopes died in 2002) and a new investigation about the group's background. The story begins in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Pebbles performed as a solo artist, married record producer Antonio "L.A." Reid and was introduced to Watkins and Lopes. Pebbles arranged for an audition for them and had the two artists sign agreement with her companies Pebbitone and PT Entertainment. Thomas came on board shortly thereafter.
"At the time the members of TLC executed these agreements they were 19 and 20 years old with virtually no professional experience and no sophisticated personal or family advisors," says the Viacom memo. "Traditionally, a group’s manager is a key consultant to guide and advise young artists in such decisions and negotiations: as Pebbles acknowledges, record contracts are 'put forth to confuse us all.' Here, however, Pebbles was hopelessly conflicted since the counterparty to every deal TLC signed was either her own companies or her husband’s company. To provide advice, Pebbles steered the members of TLC to the firm Katz & Cherry, P.C., where her husband’s personal attorney, Joel Katz, was a name partner."
Viacom says that by "any measure," Pebbles was in control, and the contract situation was "enormously beneficial" to her, entitling her to 50 percent of royalties and advances plus expenses from TLC's share. The defendant says from the publishing advance, Chilli got $38.33 a week while the other two got $85 per week. "But even these tiny amounts were reduced, as Pebbles docked portions of these advances from the group members for cursing or other violations of Pebbles’ rules," the memo notes.
Even the megahit status of the group's second album Crazysexycool couldn't deliver its members what many outsiders might expect from over 10 million records sold. "After deducting fees for lawyers, accountants, managers, and other like expenses, each member took home only approximately $300,000 to $400,000 over the entire four year period," states the memo. "In addition, TLC had a negative balance owed to Pebbitone of $827,695.12. Despite Pebbitone’s and LaFace’s argument that the group filed for bankruptcy as a guise to get out of their contracts, the bankruptcy court concluded in a published decision that the members of TLC filed bankruptcy in 'good faith' as they were each experiencing 'bona fide financial problems.'”
The group members eventually split with Pebbles, reaching a "global settlement that involved a substantial payment to Pebbitone." Over the years, the saga of TLC has been featured extensively including a VH1 Behind the Music documentary. "As Pebbles has repeatedly acknowledged, for at least 20 years she has been widely portrayed in the media as an 'evil crook' and a 'villainess' and she had done nothing to dispel that perception," says Viacom.
That's Viacom's version of events, but whether or not the lawsuit is dismissed comes down to whether specific statements carry defamatory weight. The defendant argues that the "Movie is a docudrama – not a documentary – the Court must analyze it in that context."
And so the memo goes through the allegedly defamatory statements.
Take the one where Pebbles says her reputation was hurt by pressuring TLC members to sign contracts without reading. According to Viacom, the VH1 movie boils down all the various contract signings into a single restaurant scene where TLC discusses the agreements, with Pebbles character responding, "If you don't like it, you don't have to sign." They sign. According to Viacom, "As is the case with all docudramas, the Movie compresses and telescopes events to fit them into a two hour movie. Likewise, the fact that the Movie does not show TLC reading their contracts does not mean it implies that Pebbles stopped them from reading them."
Viacom says the movie made clear that the $25 per week arrangement was "only temporary" and that there's nothing in the movie to suggest Pebbles was part of Chilli's abortion decision. The defendant says that a statement that TLC and Pebbles shared an attorney "is not defamatory of Pebbles, if it is even defamatory at all," suggesting such a conflict would injure the attorney's reputation more than anything. Viacom also argues that even if the film suggested Pebbles kicked Chilli out of the group, "There was nothing improper or illegal about this; it was a business decision that Pebbles was well within her rights to make. To the extent that decision was in error, the Movie shows she had the business acumen to reverse course and remedy her mistake. There is simply no basis for claiming that this scene injured Pebbles’ reputation or exposed her to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule."
Here's Pebble's original complaint and Viacom's full memorandum containing other arguments (protected opinions, substantial truth, no malice, etc.) why the lawsuit should be dismissed. Pebbles is represented by Stacey Evans and L. Lin Wood while Viacom's lead attorney is Elizabeth McNamara.
This article was originally published by The Hollywood Reporter.