The 1944 Court Decision That Changed Hollywood

Olivia de Havilland in "The Dark Mirror," 1946. Photo by Jack Samuels, Flickr

The showbiz press has been abuzz all day with news of a surprise shake-up (a group of high-powered talent agents defected en masse from one top agency to another). Most of the coverage has been inside baseball, but an analysis in The Hollywood Reporter by Matthew Belloni provides some interesting insight into Hollywood history:

Consider the case of the late legendary agent, who spent most of his career at ICM before defecting to William Morris in 2007, taking with him such clients as Denzel Washington, Steve Martin and more. [Ed] Limato was under contract to ICM but when the agency tried to diminish his status, he argued, in effect, that his contract was “illegal” because it violated California’s strict “seven-year rule” for personal services contracts. That law dates back to actress Olivia de Havilland’s lawsuit against Warner Bros. in the 1940s for repeatedly extending her contract with the studio after “suspending” her for rejecting suggested roles. In 1944, the California Court of Appeal ruled that de Havilland — or any other actor, director or other talent in the entertainment industry — could not be subject to a contract to perform personal services beyond seven years from the beginning of the deal. The so-called “de Havilland law” fundamentally changed Hollywood, brought about the end of the old studio system and allowed talent agencies to amass power.

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