Neon sued by producer for releasing ‘Amazing Grace’

Amazing Grace hit theaters in 2019, some 47 years after Aretha Franklin’s concert film was shot in a south LA church. The road to the big screen was littered with legal battles — including an aborted Telluride Film Festival premiere that was stopped by an injunction.

The film received critical acclaim and was one of the top-grossing documentaries of the year. But three years after his release, the legal battle continues.

On Wednesday, producer Alan Elliott filed a lawsuit in New York, accusing indie distributor Neon of botching the film’s release and awards campaign.

Elliott claims Neon announced ahead of time that it had acquired the film, scared off potential rivals, and then defaulted on its commitments after the deal was finalized. The lawsuit alleges that Neon failed to properly market the film, particularly in African American communities.

“Neon kept the image out of the theaters and communities where its release would be most impactful, instead licensing the image to streamers like Hulu,” the lawsuit reads. The lawsuit also alleges that Neon was involved in “Hollywood bookkeeping” and deliberately “bringing the film to its knees” to avoid paying out bonuses.

In a statement, Neon rejected the allegations.

“We are extremely proud of the campaign and release we have forged for ‘Amazing Grace,'” said the distributor. “Our goal has always been to honor the legendary ‘Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin by continuing to make this film as widely available as possible for all viewers to enjoy her raw, timeless talent. At this time, we will refrain from making this baseless and unsubstantiated claim and look forward to defending our quality of work and reputation.”

Sydney Pollack shot the film at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in 1972. However, technical problems in synchronizing the sound and image meant that it was shelved for decades. Elliott, described in the lawsuit as a “longtime admirer” of Franklin, eventually salvaged the footage, acquired the rights and oversaw the film’s completion. The legal battle with Franklin and her family was only settled after her death in 2018.

That fall, Elliott announced 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 spring 2019 general release. At the time, he said he was told by agents and publicists that maybe it would be better to wait a year to allow a distributor to run a multi-million dollar awards campaign.

But he said he thought the film could only compete in the documentary category – and for best picture – by word of mouth.

The film wasn’t nominated for Best Documentary — Free Solo won that year — or Best Picture. He received nominations at a number of film festivals and won an NAACP Image Award.

In the lawsuit, Elliott accuses Neon of “abandoning every effort to promote the film’s awards show, even though the film was widely regarded as an Oscar contender and a big favorite in its category.” The lawsuit also alleges that Neon failed to submit the film for the awards show.

The following year, Neon released Honeyland, which was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Documentary and Best International Feature, and Parasite, which won Best Picture and three other Academy Awards. More recently, Neon released Oscar-winning Flee and The Worst Person in the World. The company is now considering a sale. Neon sued by producer for releasing ‘Amazing Grace’

Charles Jones

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