Lawsuit tossed out against Rio Grande Studios - by Tom Treweek

Rio Grande Studios, the company set to take over Rio Rancho's PEG 51, is locked in a dispute with a California film studio over the cost of a recent project. Caught in the middle of the fight are the actors who have yet to be paid.

Last spring, Rio Grande Studios began filming "Taming the Wild West: The Legend of Jedediah Smith" for the History Channel.

The end result was a lawsuit filed by Rio Grande Studios against San-Francisco-based Indigo Films, which countersued for copyright infringement.

That suit has since been dismissed, but the actors who appeared in the film have still not been paid.

Richard Anderson was a featured extra in the studio's production. For his role as a warrior, he was required to choreograph fight scenes and do stunt work. In total, he worked 30 to 36 hours. He was never paid his $140 salary.

"I kind of take it as an insult," Anderson said. "They should pay us at least triple what they owe us just to make it even."

Rio Grande Studios owner Michael Jacobs said he is rectifying this situation.

"Every single person that hasn't been paid yet is going to be taken care of," he said.

That is not soon enough for Anderson.

A member of the Navajo Nation and resident of Crownpoint, Anderson has had trouble making his child support payments.

"They're still taking advantage of us," he said.

Anderson also played a role in Steven Spielberg's "Into the West," which was filmed about the same time. Payment on that film also took longer than normal. Three weeks, he said.

Likewise, Rhett Lynch, a member of the Navajo tribe and Albuquerque resident, said he was never paid for his three days of work. He said he also received no explanation from Rio Grande Studios why his money would be withheld. He does not expect to see his money.

"I really pretty much gave up on it," he said.

In addition, he said, little attention was paid to the needs of the actors.

"That day, it was bitter cold," he said. "We were made to stand for a long time in breech cloth.

"There was no regard for us whatsoever, absolutely zero."

Lynch, however, faced the opposite working on actor Kevin Costner's "Wyatt Earp." In that production the crew worked to protect the actors from extreme heat.

Like Anderson, Lynch had financial difficulties as a result of not being paid.

"I really needed the money," he said.

Lynch said he would have understood the studio's financial setback, and even resigned himself to waiting for his pay, had Jacobs explained the situation. Jacobs said he told the actors what had happened, but apparently not everyone had heard.

"There was no communication at all," Lynch said. "It was just silence."

Costume designer Kathy Smith also did not receive payment. Rio Grande Studios owes her $2,000 for costume rentals. Smith, who won an Emmy for "Son of the Morning Star" and was nominated for an Oscar for "Dances with Wolves," said she left another job to help Jacobs' production.

"I jumped through hoops to make them look great," said.

Smith admits she should have required a deposit, but waived it for this shoot.

TVI instructor and Applause Talent Agency owner Jim Grubner said that the company should have taken care of the actors regardless of the financial worries.

"It's kind of bad form, they didn't pay any of the Native American actors, and that's not cool," he said. "And they didn't pay any of the extras, and that's not cool."

Lynch said that he feared this incident could damage the reputation of New Mexico within the film industry.

"(Gov. Bill) Richardson has put a great deal of effort into bringing the film community to New Mexico," he said. "When things like this happen, it gives you a black eye."

The New Mexico Film Office, also may share some of the blame for the fiasco.

According to Jacobs, along with his wife and co-owner Ruby Handler Jacobs, film office members offered to help them fund the project. The person who made that offer, however, did not sufficiently understand the programs available through the film office, the couple said.

At the very least, Grubner said, the film office should have warned them not to do the project.

"The film office should have said it was not a realistic budget, (but) you can't expect them to police everything," he said. "It should have been the person (production manager Mike Miller) at Rio Grande who said they could do it."

Because of the promise from this official, Rio Grande Studios took the project for a low price.

Officials of the New Mexico Film Office did not return calls seeking comment.

Some within the project said the fee should have thrown up a flag flag immediately.

"It was a ridiculously low budget, but (Jacobs) agreed," said John Meade, the second assistant director.

Meade said Jacobs should have expected to come out in the red, but the studio owner acted like he expected to make money on the project.

"When you take on something, maybe you take a loss," Meade said. "He was totally unwilling to lose money."

Taking too low a fee for the project, however, was not the only mistake Meade pins on Jacobs. He had to make up for a lot of the problems the project faced, Meade said.

"In the midst of production, I was doing my duties as assistant director, and I was managing locations and secured locations for the other five days of shooting," Meade said. "I took on a lot more work than I usually do."

Meade also described food that was unfit to eat - "He was a step above peanut butter and jelly sandwiches," he said.

Michael Jacobs said the studio's chef had quit on the second day of production.

At one point, toilets weren't available, coming two hours after the actors began to film, Meade said.

"I could go on and on with things like that," he said. "Michael Jacobs didn't know what he was doing. He was in total denial of any mistakes he had made."

Meade said that Jacobs personality only further deteriorated the situation.

"I just think he's a menace. He ought to become a used car salesman or something," Meade said. "He was out of integrity; he was rude."

Meade said that, in the end, everything would have been fine if the actors had been paid.

"Your responsibility is to honor your agreements with people," he said. "If someone doesn't pay you, deal with it separately."

Grubner agreed with Meade about Jacobs' attitude, saying their attitude "made things worse," but he defended the couple's character.

"I don't think Michael or Ruby are out to make a million dollars or skin people off," he said. "They made a huge mistake and they just don't have the money to repair the mistake. I think these people are just naive."

He said, however, that a dialogue would help ease some of the tension.

"A lot of times, when people don't get paid, if you sit down and talk with them, they'll allow a lot," he said.

Some people on the shoot did get paid. Crewmembers were paid through a loan by IATSE Local 480 (The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada).

Union President John Hendry confirmed that the loan was for a "substantial amount."

"We want to make sure the union employees get paid," he said.

The Jacobs' said the loan was part of the planning for the project, but others, like Meade, contend that it did not happen until afterward. Hendry would not elaborate on the conditions of the loan.

Indigo Films, however, is not above reproach in this matter.

Several people pointed to Carmen Silva, who Indigo hired to replace Miller as production manager, as a source of woe for Rio Grande Studios. Silva reportedly charged many items to Rio Grande Studios without authorization.

Indigo Films President David Frank defended Silva, saying that those items she charged were necessary for the filming. Jacobs, however, called it a breach of contract.

The original lawsuit was dismissed without prejudice, and the Jacobs' plan to pursue legal action. Frank, too, said he would again counter sue because of the extra work his company had to do.

In the midst of this, Rio Grande Studios, located on Osuna Road in Albuquerque, is on the verge of signing a contract with the city of Rio Rancho to run its public access channel, PEG 51. Michael and Ruby Handler Jacobs said the problems with Indigo Films would not interfere with their ability to run a public access studio.

City Administrator Jim Palenick also agreed. He said that his concerns over the contract would not change if a different company were signing. He also said he the language used in the city's contracts "ensures that the city will not be hurt."

Meanwhile, Michael and Ruby Handler Jacobs are pointing to another project to validate their abilities as artists. The couple's film "Crab Orchard" - Michael directed and Ruby starred opposite Judge Reinhold - recently won the International Family Film Festival Director's Gold Award.

"(Crab Orchard) is my first job as a director, and it is our first film we worked together on," said Michael Jacobs, who began his career as a photojournalist. Jacobs has photographed celebrities such as Roy Orbison, Elton John, Barbara Streisand and presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.

Currently, the couple is looking for a distributor for the film. They envision it airing on Lifetime, Encore, or the Hallmark Channel.

Though they are excited about moving into PEG 51, the couple also has other plans to build near the events center. They are planning a $13.4 million project, which, built in phases, could include a car museum housing autos from famous movies, a retail area and river walk and an amusement park and studio tours.

Copyright © 2007 Rio Rancho Observer