A year after Alec Baldwin accidentally shot and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the New Mexico set of rust, the producers, still facing civil litigation and under a cloud of potential criminal liability, are looking to finish the film in the next few months. Key to this gambit is a private settlement with Hutchins’ estate, announced Oct. 5, which is pending court approval. The plan both ends the wrongful death action brought by Hutchins’ family on Feb. 15 and makes her widower, Matthew, an executive producer on the movie.
The settlement marks a public about-face for Matthew Hutchins. After filing suit, he told Hoda Kotb on NBC’s today show that “there were a number of industry standards that were not practiced, and there’s multiple responsible parties,” adding pointedly of Baldwin, “The idea that the person holding the gun and causing it to discharge is not responsible is absurd to me.” Yet in tandem with the settlement announcement, he stated: “I have no interest in engaging in recriminations or attribution of blame (to the producers or Baldwin). All of us believe Halyna’s death was a terrible accident. I am grateful that the producers and the entertainment community have come together to pay tribute to Halyna’s final work.”
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with legal experts about what might have precipitated Hutchins’ public reconciliation with the producers, and what both sides stand to gain in the settlement.
rust‘s producers have included Ryan Smith and Allen Cheney, whose checked history with financial and safety issues on earlier films came to the fore after Hutchins’ death on the Western drama. Also party to the rust producing consortium: Baldwin’s manager, Matt DelPiano, as well as actor Anjul Nigam, who later co-starred with Baldwin in disaster thriller 97 Minutes, which shot in the UK in February. It’s yet to be determined which of these producers will remain on board through completion of photography and potential release.
The film’s producers, operating under Rust Movie Productions (RMP), declined to answer questions about the proposed deal. “The terms of the settlement are confidential, and its approval is proceeding apace,” said their attorney Melina Spadone, in a statement provided to The Hollywood Reporter. Representatives for the Hutchins family did not respond to inquiries.
Veteran entertainment attorney Bryan Sullivan, who regularly works with independent productions as their legal strategist in business affairs, notes that “the whole point of creating [Rust Move Productions] is for liability purposes.” On independent productions, such special-purpose entities are created as financial vehicles that offer management, accounting and tax advantages, acting as an umbrella that essentially allows producers to treat productions as though they are companies. Critically, they protect their owners, whose liability is limited to the amount invested in the movie.
The only assets RMP has are the rights to the movie, the footage and any forthcoming proceeds. If there is a judgment against the company in any of the civil suits it’s facing, damages would be limited to those assets. Finishing and distributing the movie is likely the sole path available to compensate the victims. For Hutchins, an EP credit — along with a piece of the backend — was one of his few options in a settlement.
“rust doesn’t have a lot in the way of assets outside of the rights to the picture, and the only way that’s worth anything is for it to get done,” says entertainment attorney Nick Soltman. “It’s less a question of what Rust Movie Productions wanted and more a question of what they could offer to him.”
In the event Hutchins refused to settle and plans for the movie marched forward regardless, rust‘s financiers would have had first dibs on the proceeds as unsecured creditors. By attaching his name to the production that he initially faulted for negligence in the death of his wife, he now stands among the first in line, unlike those continuing to pursue their arguments against RMP.
It remains unclear what rights are conferred by Matthew Hutchins’ EP title, including where he will be situated in the financial “waterfall,” which is a project’s payment distribution agreement. Other open questions include whether the Hutchins family will be separately compensated outside of RMP, and if the settlement terms included Hutchins’ publicly absolving Baldwin and the other producers.
Hutchins could have looked to hold RMP’s owners personally responsible for the incident — known as “piercing the corporate veil.” Successfully doing so would have enabled him to go after money from the company’s owners, including Smith, who showcased a lifestyle of private jet travel and lodging at the Four Seasons Rancho Encantado in Santa Fe via social media during production on rust. But attorney Sean Andrade, who specializes in litigation against special-purpose entities, says that would have been exceedingly difficult in this case because it appears as if the company followed corporate formalities to be considered a legal entity. He also notes that the creation of limited liability corporations to produce movies is normal practice.
Another factor in Hutchins’ decision to settle may be other civil litigation currently underway. The Hutchins settlement was announced as a lawsuit from script supervisor Mamie Mitchell works its way through court. In that case, Mitchell has faced an uphill battle in attaching liability over the shooting to RMP. A Los Angeles judge in September dismissed claims of assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress against the company and producers Smith and Cheney, both of whom produced rust through their Thomasville Pictures, because they didn’t know that Baldwin “would aim and fire the loaded weapon towards Plaintiff such that they would be jointly liable for his intentional conduct.” The order from the court reads: “In fact, Plaintiff’s would show the opposite to be true: the only person who knew Baldwin was going to fire the weapon was Baldwin.”
Since the shooting, RMP and other producers have argued in civil court and in contesting a finely assessed by New Mexico’s safety commission that they were not responsible for supervising the production and simply financed it. They have claimed that armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed was “singularly responsible for all tasks associated with the use of firearms and ammunition,” including responsibilities related to “ensuring that RMP’s express prohibition against the presence of live ammunition was strictly followed, ensuring that only blanks were used when called for by the script, and that only dummy rounds were used.”
Despite that RMP ignored industry- norms related to the use of guns by cutting corners on safety to shoot the movie on a shoestring budget, it’s becoming increasingly likely that company will not be apportioned much blame for the shooting.
Mitchell and other plaintiffs could still go after Baldwin, but his liability remains uncertain. The actor has stressed that assistant director Dave Halls shouted “cold gun” — a widely understood term on film sets referring to firearms that contain no rounds — before handing him the old-fashioned revolver that killed Hutchins. (Baldwin also maintained that he never pulled the trigger, though an FBI forensic report found that it could not have discharged without someone doing so.) “Baldwin wasn’t negligent,” Sullivan says. “Somebody else was responsible for making sure the gun was empty, but he’s the only one with money that I’m aware of who’s a defendant. It’d be hard to put all of the blame on him, though.”
Also still on the docket are lawsuits from gaffer Serge Svetnoy and medic Cherlyn Schaefer. They allege negligence against RMP, claiming the film’s producers did not hire enough qualified crewmembers to maintain a safe set. Schaefer’s suit does not name Baldwin as a defendant. A common theme across all the suits is that the safety culture on set was severely lacking. Some point to two other misfires before Halyna Hutchins was killed, in which Baldwin’s stunt double accidentally fired a blank and a prop master shot herself in the foot.
In addition to the EP credit, there was likely a monetary component to the settlement paid by the production’s insurance and other defendants named in Matthew Hutchins’ suit. RMP attorney Spadone confirmed to THR that rust was insured for the duration of filming under a “single insurer, with different components of coverage, in addition to workers’ compensation.” Notably, however, multiple sources tell THR that rust didn’t secure a completion bond, which doesn’t bode well for the chances that it carried an expansive policy with deep coverage. Sullivan says, “I guarantee you they bought a cheap insurance policy. It’s rare that any [special-purpose] company buys a policy with full coverage. On a production like that — small, low-budget — do they want to pay $500,000 and get the Rolls-Royce of policies? Probably not.”
Legal observers also emphasize that a possible strategic consideration in installing Matthew Hutchins as an executive producer on the project is to counteract negative public sentiment toward the completion and distribution of rust. Similarly, the widower’s involvement may complicate the remaining civil litigation by other parties.
Soltman notes the unwieldy dynamic created by the settlement in which plaintiffs in the other cases are “essentially competing with [Matthew Hutchins] for judgment” since “they’re all going after the same pot of money.”
Andrade explains, “Matthew Hutchins now has a stake in the movie. To the extent that someone else who filed a lawsuit will get some amount of money, whether in a settlement or an eventual verdict, that would whatever he’s able to recover himself from the film and the ultimate profits. It was a smart move since they’re facing multiple arguments.”
Meanwhile, the criminal investigation remains ongoing. In a statement on Oct. 21, the one-year anniversary of Hutchins’ death, Santa Fe’s First Judicial Dist. Atty. Mary Carmack-Altwies said she was awaiting a report from the Sheriff’s Office. She’d previously made it known that charges could be brought against as many as four people, including Baldwin, and she had appointed a special prosecutor. A spokesperson for her office noted: “No one is above the law.”