LOCAL FILM producer Steve Gordon had been shopping around a movie called "Must Be the Music" co-starring Charles "Roc" Dutton and Tasha Smith.
The movie, filmed locally in 2011, is set in Philly and revolves around a drug-dealer-turned-hip-hop-mogul faced with deciding which of his children will carry on his musical legacy.
Lee Daniels' "Empire," which premieres at 9 p.m. Jan. 7, and features co-stars Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson and Gabourey Sidibe, also is set in Philly and revolves around a drug-dealer-turned-hip-hop-mogul who, after getting diagnosed with ALS, must decide which of his children will take over the family music business.
After all, as the literary giant Mark Twain once pointed out, "There's no such thing as a new idea."
But Gordon, a former Daily News Sexy Single known around Philly as Stevie Gee, isn't so sure. Which is why, this month, he had his lawyer send a cease-and-desist letter to Daniels, Fox TV and Imagine Entertainment.
"Our thing was bringing Hollywood to Philly - not for them to take something from us," Gordon told me yesterday.
Did someone in Hollywood really borrow from his concept?
That's an awfully tough thing to prove. After all, it's not as if "Empire" executive producer Daniels - who directed "The Butler," "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire" and "Monster's Ball," which got Halle Berry her Best Actress chops - is hurting for projects. He's a creative genius, who, like Gordon, grew up in Philly.
Maybe they both had the same idea? I've watched the trailers for both projects and, other than both being set around the Philly hip-hop scene, no other glaring similarities jumped out at me.
Yesterday, I reached out to Imagine Entertainment, but the production company founded by Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer in 1986 is closed until Jan. 5. A phone call to a representative for Fox wasn't returned yesterday. Emails requesting an interview with Daniels got no response.
Gordon, 42, got his start in the entertainment business after dropping out of Bartram High School in 1990. His passion for writing flourished while he was being held at a juvenile facility.
"From when I was a kid, I used to see a lot of things growing up and I would put it into my own story form," Gordon said.
His music career began in earnest after he started to manage the hip-hop duo Philly's Most Wanted around 1991. Along the way, Gordon also worked with homegrown artists such as Nina Ross and Major Figgas.
Gordon's big break came in 1997, when he met Beanie Sigel and helped the rapper get signed to a recording contract with Def Jam's Roc-A-Fella Records. Gordon also introduced some writers to former Roc-A-Fella CEO Damon Dash, which led to the creation of the 2002 film "State Property" starring Sigel, Memphis Bleek and Omillio Sparks.
He also owns several barbershops including Mal's Barbershop at 55th and Woodland, the neighborhood around Kingsessing and Southwest Philly where he grew up. It was around 2000 that Gordon - who plans to open a neighborhood juice bar/coffee shop/eatery called Chicken Ro come spring - got the idea to produce a movie based on the local music scene.
He and Dutton - whom he met through a music buddy - took years to think through the concept, write the script and hire a cast starring Dutton as well as Smith ("Why Did I Get Married?" and OWN's "For Better or Worse").
"Must be the Music" also features former Bravo "Real Housewives of Atlanta" co-star Lisa Wu; actor Clifton Powell ("Next Friday" and "Friday After Next"); the rapper Jadakiss; Black Thought of the Roots and rapper Meek Mill. Gordon estimates that his movie cost more than $1 million to produce.
Along with Dutton, he unsuccessfully shopped "Must Be the Music" to movie studios. Gordon told me that he had some nibbles early on but they never materialized. Then, last summer, Gordon heard about Daniels' series, which Fox nabbed for its 2014-15 season.
Gordon, who hasn't seen a full episode of "Empire" yet, points to the fact that both his project and the Fox series are hip-hop musicals. Also, one of the mogul's sons in "Empire" is gay. The daughter of the mogul in "Must be the Music" is a lesbian.
But are those details enough to make a case against "Empire"?
I'm not convinced.