Judge tosses out Utah filmmaker’s lawsuit, which accused ‘Nightcrawler’ of stealing from LDS-themed story

(Paul Fraughton | Tribune file photo) Filmmaker Richard Dutcher, shown in April 2012, has seen a judge dismiss his lawsuit against the makers of the 2014 movie "Nightcrawler," which Dutcher claimed was substantially similar to his 2007 movie "Falling."

A federal judge has dismissed a Utah filmmaker’s lawsuit against several Hollywood production companies, which had accused them of stealing the idea for his movie.

Richard Dutcher claimed the companies stole the idea for his 2007 drama “Falling” to make the 2014 drama “Nightcrawler.” But U.S. District Judge Dee Benson dismissed the claims, filed against Bold Films, Open Road Films, NBCUniversal Media and Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

“[T]he court determined that no reasonable jury could find that ‘Falling’ is substantially similar to ‘Nightcrawler,’” Benson wrote in a nine-page order for summary judgment, issued Monday along with the dismissal.

(Photo courtesy Open Road Films) Jake Gyllenhaal plays a freelance crime videographer in the 2014 drama "Nightcrawler."

Dutcher wrote and directed “Falling,” and starred as a Los Angeles cameraman who worked as a freelancer, selling footage of homicides and traffic accidents to local TV stations. Dutcher’s character wrestles with his faith — the character, like Dutcher at the time, was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and the morality of profiting off other people’s misery.

“Nightcrawler,” for which writer-director Dan Gilroy received an Academy Award nomination for original screenplay, stars Jake Gyllenhaal as an L.A. con man who acquires a video camera and starts a career as a freelance videographer, shooting footage of crime scenes and selling them to a ratings-hungry TV producer (Rene Russo).

In his ruling, Benson noted that any movie about freelancers for media outlets, sometimes called stringers, or about journalism will have some elements in common — such as the phrase “if it bleeds, it leads,” used in both films — but the specifics of the two movies are different.

For example, Benson noted that Dutcher’s character “is a generally moral character who demonstrates significant remorse for his stringer behaviors,” while Gyllenhaal’s character “is a generally amoral character who does not seem to feel remorse for his actions.”

The murder scenes in the two movies also are quite different, Benson wrote. “Falling” depicts a daylight gang mugging that Dutcher’s character tapes rather than helping the victim. “Nightcrawler” shows Gyllenhaal’s character entering a private home to tape a crime victim’s death and, in another scene, intentionally putting his intern (Riz Ahmed) in a police line of fire.

Dutcher filed the lawsuit against the makers of “Nightcrawler” in 2015, seeking an injunction to stop copying, public display or distribution of the film. At the time, Dutcher said he planned to release “Falling” on DVD and Blu-ray, and was looking to adapt and recast the story for a mass-market release.

“Falling” screened in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City in 2007, and had a limited DVD release. Dutcher courted controversy by renting a billboard on Interstate 15 to declare the movie “the first R-rated Mormon film.”

“Nightcrawler” — with a production budget estimated at $8.5 million — made $32.3 million at the domestic box office during its run from October 2014 to February 2015, according to the website Box Office Mojo.