Filmmaker Bill Boll thought he was inadequately paid for his role in Built for Speed: The Coral Court Motel, a documentary eulogizing St. Louis' most famous den of iniquity. So he did what any red-blooded American would do: He took his case to the court of Judge Alex.
Judge Alex is a nationally syndicated update of The People's Court, except instead of Judge Wapner, it features linebacker-physiqued Alex Ferrer, a Cuban-American who gave up a real judgeship in Miami to play one on TV.
Alex heard Boll's case against Built for Speed's other producer, Shellee Graham, a dispute originally destined for small claims court in St. Louis County. Boll sought reimbursement for filming and editing equipment he'd purchased for production of the film, which received funding from University's City Committee for Access and Local Origination Programming (CALOP). The $10,000 grant was disbursed directly to Graham, who'd given Boll $4,000 and kept the rest.
"Most of her expenses were reimbursed and virtually none of mine were," says Boll, who estimates that he spent about $7,000 of his own money on the film.
"There were plenty of things I was never reimbursed for -- hotel bills, parking, food," counters Graham, adding, "There was never any contract or agreement between us."
Boll v. Graham was plucked from county limbo by Alex stringers shortly before its scheduled May court date. Boll says he was reluctant when the producers came calling. "They liked the case, but I was reticent to want to go on a show like that at first," he recounts. "Since the judge is actually an arbitrator, when you appear on the show you're completely bound by the arbitrator's decision. You can't appeal it."
Graham, on the other hand, thought it might bring attention to the film and her pet cause of architectural preservation. "And they said, 'We pay the judgment,'" Graham adds. "So it's a win/win situation [for the plaintiff]."
Eventually Boll came around. For their troubles each litigant received a plane ticket to Houston, a $150 appearance fee, meal allowances and a night in a swank hotel.
They also got lessons in reality-TV etiquette. "The producers said, 'Judge Alex is going to try to cut you off, but that's all part of the act. He knows that we're telling you to interrupt each other and to be combative,'" Boll says. "And they said he's usually made a decision before the show is taped."
The taping was done on the same set as Texas Justice, the court show Alex replaced.
"Ladies of the evening in a motel? C'mon! Now you're just making it up," goofed Alex after opening statements. Over the next ten minutes, he heard arguments from Boll -- eyebrow ring in place and hair dyed bright red -- and Graham, looking deadly serious in a black pinstripe suit.
In the end Alex ruled in favor of Boll for the amount he'd sought: $2,000. "You basically took the money and said, 'Look, it's not fair that you get to keep all this [equipment]. I'm gonna keep part of it for me and put it in my pocket,'" Alex admonished Graham. "That is clearly not what the grant was intended to do."
The most surreal element of the experience came after Alex left the courtroom. "The crew came out and said, 'Don't move,' and then they left," Boll recalls. "There were all these cameras pointed at us -- I figured for reaction shots. I thought, 'I'll give them something to look at. So I turned to Shellee and I stuck my tongue out at her. And then she kinda winked back at me, which I took to mean 'No hard feelings.'
"Two weeks later, I'm driving around in the West End and I get a phone call from one of the producers. She was livid. She saw that wink and concluded that Shelley and I were in collusion to rip off the show, that we'd made up the whole thing and it was a bogus case. They said that they've got a signed contract saying they can come after us for the whole production expense of the show. I tried to explain how ridiculous this was: 'First of all, you contacted us!'"
Boll didn't hear anything further from the producer. Boll v. Graham aired earlier this month on KTVI-TV (FOX 2), complete with his "reaction shot" smirk. No tongue-wagging, though, and no wink. Instead, the show cut to a promo for the segment that was to follow: "Next on Judge Alex: Did the bride recycle her bridesmaid's dress and stick the defendant with the bill?"