Dog training film sparks lawsuit

Author: Robert Gavin
Date Published: 07/04/2008

Monks at Washington County’s New Skete community say filmmaker owes them money from 1996 release

ALBANY — For 42 years, the monks of New Skete Monastery have laid claim to a mountaintop in Washington County’s highlands, practicing their Orthodox Church faith with prayers, work and study.

For most of that time, they’ve also raised German shepherds.

In 1994, that calling drew the eye of an independent California director who spent a year filming a series on the pooch training.

But 14 years later, the monks say they’re still waiting for their share of agreed-upon royalties — and they’re taking a lawsuit against the director to U.S. District Court in Albany on Monday.

The series, ”Raising Your Dogs With the Monks of New Skete,” hit the market in 1996. In court papers, the monks say director Matthew Murray sold a ”great number of copies of the training series,” yet only forked over an initial $5,000 advance.

They contend a 1994 agreement, which Murray prepared, shows they agreed to provide ”instruction and informative discourse on the subject of canine training.” In return, the lawsuit stated, Murray received rights to produce, distribute and broadcast the canine training film.

The monks say they were entitled to at least 20 percent of the film’s net profits, once the initial investment and applicable costs were recovered. Their lawsuit, first filed in Washington County, is now in federal court before U.S. District Judge Gary Sharpe.

While Murray had plans for two additional works on the monks, they want him to cease those plans and turn over any materials such as videotape and film stock. They did not cite a specific amount they seek, saying they don’t have access to Murray’s books.

Brother Luke Dorr, the monastery’s leader, declined comment Thursday, citing the ongoing litigation.

The suit names Murray, a 47-year-old native of Montoursville, Pa., as well as his Los Angeles-based company, Atmosphere Entertainment. Both Murray and his Albany-based attorney, Joseph Stinson, declined to discuss the litigation Thursday.

Murray argues in court papers that despite ”substantial and ongoing efforts to promote sales of the video for more than a decade, the rate of total sales to date have been disappointing and the initial investment and applicable costs of the project have not been recouped.”

It continued, ”The project has not realized any net profits.”

Among other points, Murray contends he gave the monks hundreds of copies of the tapes, which they sold for $19,000, keeping all profits. They were also given 5,500 names and addresses of customers who bought the tape from Murray’s Web site, he argues.

He’s filed several counterclaims against the monks — four of which are for $2 million — that include allegations they defamed him with ”false and misleading” statements.

Initially based in northwestern Pennsylvania, the monks arrived atop the hillside in White Creek in 1966 and have remained, a Christian group within the Orthodox Church. They’re one of three New Skete communities; the Nuns of New Skete formed in 1969, while the Companions of New Skete, which includes married couples, was formed in 1983, according to the monastery’s Web site.

New Skete’s German shepherd training dates back 35 years years, the Web site explained. It said all the dogs live in the monastery ”with each monk responsible for the training and care of a female or male dog.”

”The excellence in temperament, personality and structure for which our German Shepherds are known is the result of carefully researched and selected bloodlines and the all-important early handling we give our puppies from the day they are born until they leave us between 8 and 10 weeks of age,” the site stated. ”All of our German Shepherds live right in our monastery.”

In 1999, the Times Union reported that the New Skete community supports itself by breeding German Shepherd dogs and boarding and training of all breeds. It stated they also make dog beds, T-shirts, gourmet cheesecakes, biscotti and dog biscuits, not to mention liturgical works of art sold in the monks’ gift shop. Gavin can be reached at 434-2403 or by e-mail at rgavin@ timesunion.com.