The fate of Steven Spielberg's upcoming entry in the holiday film sweepstakes, the slave-ship drama Amistad, hangs in the balance now that a court hearing has been set on a preliminary injunction request filed by author Barbara Chase-Riboud Tuesday. A federal judge will listen to arguments on whether to shelve the flick December 8 in Los Angeles--just two days before Amistad is set to open in New York and L.A.

Chase-Riboud filed a $10 million copyright infringement suit against Spielberg's DreamWorks last month, claiming the movie ripped off the "structure and flow" and "fictitious characters, incidents and relationships" in her 1989 historical novel Echo of Lions.

She recruited prominent attorney Pierce O'Donnell, renowned for successfully representing Art Buchwald eight years ago when he sued Paramount for stealing his ideas to make Coming to America. "Since the Art Buchwald case, I've probably turned down 250 cases like this," O'Donnell tells Daily Variety. "This is the first meritorious case I've seen in a decade."

Although copyright suits are common in the film industry--and injuction motions are usually nixed, O'Donnell believes "the facts in this case really [support] such a ruling." O'Donnell says he sought the injunction after discovering what he calls "direct evidence of actual copying."

That evidence, apparently, includes a declaration from screenwriter Benjamin Pettis, who says he pitched an idea for a film called Echoes of Lions to Dustin Hoffman's New York-based Punch Productions in 1992.

After optioning Chase-Riboud's novel, Punch turned around and assigned the screenplay for the ultimately abandoned project to writer David Franzoni--the same guy who ended up getting the sole screenplay credit for Amistad. (Franzoni's attorney tells the Los Angeles Times her client had his own take on the story and never heard of Echo.)

Chase-Riboud also claims friend and editor Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis once presented the book to Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, only to get it rejected as a movie idea.

In any event, now Punch has been added to the suit, as well as Penguin Books, which is publishing the novelization of Amistad.

For its part, DreamWorks denies the charges, contending that, in spite of extensive research for the movie about an 1839 slave-ship revolt, it never came across Echo--even though the novel was extensively reviewed and sold more than 500,000 copies.

The studio adds that it's silly for Chase-Riboud to sue over historical characters and situations. "For her to try and stop this film is a disgrace," studio lawyer Bert Fields tells the Times. "She's doing it only for money."

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