By now, we're not surprised when a Sundance Film Festival documentary finds controversy. In 1998 it was "Kurt and Courtney;" in 1998, "Frat House," in 2010 it was "Catfish."
For 2012, it's Lauren Greenfield's "The Queen of Versailles," which has generated a lawsuit in advance of its opening-night premiere next Thursday.
However, this year's plaintiff distinguished himself by not suing over the film, but over the online proliferation of the associated press release. Specifically, the complaint stems from the film's blurb contained in the announcement of the festival's selections.
The festival press release describes the film as showing a journey of "rags to riches to rags." It's those last "rags," along with saying that their 90,00-square-foot residence was foreclosed, that have infuriated plaintiff David Siegel, owner of Florida-based Westgate Resorts, a timeshare and real estate development company with interests that include Westgate Park City Resorts & Spa.
A Sundance Institute spokesperson said, "Sundance Institute maintains its long-held and firm commitment to freedom of expression and looks forward to screening this film by an award winning filmmaker at the opening of Sundance Film Festival 2012."
In the Sundance Film Festival catalog, the "Queen of Versailles" blurb is credited to festival director John Cooper. It appears to be an edited version that omits those last "rags," as well as any mention of foreclosure.
Too little too late, per the filing: "Taken individually and collectively these [press release] statements portray Siegel and Westgate as essentially broke and out of business."
Leaving aside all questions as to whether the offending phrases could be actionable, the core of the complaint lies with the internet. The release went out November 30; per the suit, Siegel contacted Greenfield and producer Frank Evers December 1 to demand that she "address" the statements.
According to the suit, she "agreed with Siegel that the Sundance Description was false and they would be taking all necessary steps to correct it. Despite Greenfield and Evers' promises, the Original Sundance Description had already been transmitted to various media outlets all over the Internet."
"As a result of the defamatory statements," the suit claims, "Siegel and Westgate have… been shunned by customers and the business community, specifically the Park City area, with whom they had previously had business relations and have suffered a loss of customers and diminished profits."
However, in terms of taking effective action against the offending blurb, the Westgate lawsuit is exactly what you don't do if you're looking to soothe a search engine.
The suit complains that "the Original Sundance Description appeared on over 12,000 websites." Today, a search for "queen of versailles documentary lawsuit" currently gets 116,000 Google results.
And Sundance hasn't even started.
"What we would look to do is suppress it in the results," said Ernie Baxter, advanced client services manager for Reputation.com, an online reputation management and privacy company founded by Harvard Law grad Michael Fertik. "In search results, 99% of people don't go past the second page."
According to Baxter, it's possible to create custom technology that could flood the internet with more "positive" results and push down the undesirable content. However, that kind of online forensic cleanup operation doesn't come cheaply. "You're looking at $20,000 to $30,000 a month, with a six month engagement," he said.
At this point, however, it would likely be too late. The lawsuit "will just continue to add relevancy to it," said Baxter. "It's really hard to put the milk back in the jug."