Aspiring filmmaker Darryl Wharton was raised never to back down from a fight.
That's why he filed a $1.8 billion lawsuit Thursday in Baltimore Circuit Court against Sony Pictures and Oscar-nominated writer/director John Singleton, who won critical acclaim for his urban drama "Boyz N the Hood."
The suit alleges that Mr. Singleton based his recent film "Higher Learning" on a script Mr. Wharton submitted to him in 1991 called "Caught Out There."
"By sending him my script, I invited him into my house," said Mr. Wharton, 27, a Baltimore native. "I feel like he stole my TV, had a big Super Bowl party, and didn't invite me."
Mr. Wharton is seeking $900 million in compensatory and $900 million in punitive damages from Mr. Singleton, his production company, Sony Pictures and its theaters, Columbia Pictures and a Sony Theaters representative.
"Higher Learning" grossed $38 million nationally this year before leaving theaters, according to Entertainment Data, a Los Angeles company that tracks movie revenue.
A spokesman for Columbia declined to comment, and calls to Mr. Singleton's publicist and agent were not returned. Sony's senior counsel, Kelly Kay, said the company does not comment on pending litigation, but added, "We have not even seen the lawsuit yet."
Mr. Wharton alleges that "Higher Learning" bears several similarities to a screenplay he wrote for his senior project in 1990, when he was a student at Ithaca College in upstate New York. His script focused on student life and racial themes at the fictitious Unity College.
Mr. Singleton's film explores racial tensions at a fictitious Southern California university.
Mr. Wharton said he met Mr. Singleton at Harbor Park Movies in 1991, when the writer-director came to town to promote his film "Boyz N the Hood."
MA "I said to him that I knew that someone had helped him, and I
asked him to help me," said Mr. Wharton, a Baltimore City College graduate who has produced plays and music videos locally, in addition to working as a production assistant on several feature films.
"He gave me information on how to forward my work to him," he said.
Mr. Wharton said he submitted his copyrighted script in July 1991 to Mr. Singleton's production company, New Deal Productions, and it was returned in January 1992 after the company declined using it.
When "Higher Learning" was released earlier this year, Mr. Wharton was one of the first in the theaters and said he sat stunned watching what he alleges in the lawsuit to be his story.
"It kind of takes the wind out of your sails," he said, shaking his head slowly. "There are similar scenes, similar themes, and even a character with the same name."
Donna Comegy, Mr. Wharton's lawyer and vice president of his Middle Passage Productions company, said she contacted Mr. Kay, Sony's lawyer, about the matter earlier this year. Ms. Comegy said she requested $25 million, 15 percent of the movie's future gross profits and a credit stating that the film was based on Mr. Wharton's script.
But Mr. Kay wrote in response that after reviewing the screenplay he saw "nothing in the two works which constitutes the 'substantial similarity' necessary to establish a claim for copyright infringement."
Mr. Wharton said he knows suits such as his are difficult to prove. While he worries that taking on Hollywood heavyweights may lead to his being blacklisted, he said he feels he has no other choice but to pursue the suit.
"This is a chapter of my life that I never wanted to have written," he said. "But there comes a point when you have to stand up for what you believe is right and not let things slide."