By Sarah Sluis
Remember when you were a kid and sick of all your toys, and then a friend would come over, start having fun with one of your discarded toys, and all of a sudden it was "MINE!" But maybe the toy kind of
belonged to both of you, or one of you had left it at the other's house for a really, really, long time? That's kind of what's going on with Warner Bros. and Fox over Watchmen.
Watchmen had been an orphan child for years, shopped around to multiple studios by Larry Gordon, when Warner Bros. and Zack Snyder finally adopted it. As they completed production on the film, Fox filed suit, claiming that through a previous agreement, they should have been able to look at the package once Snyder came on board--Snyder being that red bow who would have finally made the movie appealing. In an expedited ruling (Warner plans--or planned--to release the film in three months), a judge ruled that Fox does have distribution rights. So how did this happen in the first place? Was this an oversight, a misinterpretation of complicated or vague legal documents, or a gamble to avoid the hassle of sorting out the rights, and as THR pointed out, a desire to avoid turnaround fees that Gordon might have had to pay in order to free the project from Fox?
The complexity surrounding this game of "dibs" makes all three scenarios likely. In any case, much was left unsaid: Gordon declined to testify, which aggravated the judge, a point he made clear when he awarded distribution rights to Fox.
What now? The judge's ruling is a bit Solomon-like: it cuts the baby in half. Warner has already started marketing the film in advance of its March 6th release date, which Fox now plans to block. Warner will appeal the ruling, and go to trial if necessary, but a trial would also delay the release date. A settlement seems the only way to avoid the gore of cutting the baby in half or moving to a less optimal release date
If Warner failed to properly secure rights, why didn't Fox try to contest its part-ownership of the project sooner? Reports differ--some say Fox did mention its claim to ownership over the project to Warner. Lawsuits are expensive, and the timing of the lawsuit--after the production finished--makes it seems as if Fox was gauging the cost/benefit of legal action for some time before deciding to file suit.
A couple other significant rights/turnaround issues have occurred in recent months: Twilight, a film with one of the highest returns on investment of the year, was plucked in turnaround by Summit after Paramount rejected the project. Earlier this year, the estate that owned the rights to Rear Window filed action against Disturbia, which reinterpreted the plot and placed Shia LaBeouf in the Jimmy Stewart role. Making Fox's timing look not so bad, the suit was filed a year after the film released, even though a simple Google search of "Rear Window + Disturbia" pulls ups tons of critical reviews pointing out the similarities between the two films.
The trial is scheduled for January 20th. Fox needs the film to be released in order to profit. For Warner, sharing rights would lead to a hefty cut in the profit: will the two studios be able to reach a settlement, or will they take their grievances to court?