Friday, December 26, 2008


Judge In 'Watchmen' Case Rules For Fox; Fans Brace For Fallout

Dec 26, 2008, 01:12 PM | by Jeff Jensen

You know how Santa Claus gives lumps of coal on Christmas Eve to those who've been very, very naughty? Well, so do judges. In a twist befitting the comic book in question, the judge presiding over the legal battle for distribution rights to Watchmen found in favor of Fox. The bottom line: Warner Bros. had absolutely no right to roll film on Zack Snyder's adaptation of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons superhero classic. As fans wait to see if the ruling will prevent the film from being released as scheduled on March 3, Fox and Warner Bros. are waiting to see if the court will determine how much Fox should get for being so wronged -- unless the studios decide to settle the matter themselves.

The ruling comes as a surprise to Hollywood observers, mostly because no one expected the judge would issue this ruling at all. The conventional wisdom was that Warner Bros. and Fox would settle privately, and the rightness and wrongness of the situation would never be officially called. Moreover, on Dec. 16, the judge set a Jan. 20 trial date for the dispute, saying he had no intention of fulfilling the request of both parties to issue a summary judgment. Why? Because, he said, the darn thing was just too complicated!

But on Christmas Eve, Judge Gary Allen Feess reversed course and issued a ruling that was clear and decisive. Why did he change his mind? Because Fox and Warner Bros. asked him to. In the wake of Feess' Dec. 16 edict, both studios pressed him to reconsider and issue a summary judgment, saying that settling this thing between them was all but impossible because they needed his guidance on interpreting an old contract between Fox and Watchmen producer Larry Gordon. That paper appears to indicate the following: Fox has always had the right to distribute a Watchmen movie; anytime Gordon put together a new version of a Watchmen movie (which is to say, develop a new script or snag a new director for the film), he had to offer Fox the chance to produce and distribute it; if Fox passed on the project, Gordon had the right to purchase Fox's interest in Watchmen and take the project elsewhere.

In his ruling, Feess concludes that Gordon never properly presented Fox with the option to produce and distribute the version of Watchmen developed by director Zack Snyder. He also makes it clear that neither Gordon nor Warner Bros. had bought out Fox's interest before Warner Bros. went into production. Indeed, Feess' ruling includes a rather sarcastic footnote blasting Gordon for his conduct in resolving this dispute. In section 3, Feess remarks that during Gordon's deposition, the producer claimed he couldn't properly recollect his contract with Fox. Feess seems so dismissive of Gordon's allegedly faulty memory, he makes the following side ruling: Should Gordon suddenly remember some salient bit of information that could now help Warner Bros.' cause, he should go back to conveniently forgetting about it. "[T]he court will not, during the remainder of this case, receive any evidence from Gordon that attempts to contradict any aspect of this Court's ruling on the copyright issues under discussion."

Feess' plainspoken declaration that Fox has always been in the right on this matter should represent vindication for the studio. Since Fox filed its lawsuit earlier this year, Watchmen fans and entertainment bloggers (including myself) have questioned why Fox waited until Snyder wrapped production before laying claim to the movie. Our questioning, of course, rested on two assumptions: 1. There was no way Gordon and Warner Bros. could have been so dim as to shoot a movie they had no right to make; and 2. If Fox was so possessive of Watchmen, how come it didn't try harder to stop Warner Bros. from wasting millions and millions of dollars on a movie it had no right to make? But as EW subsequently reported, Fox's lawyers did contact Warner Bros. prior to Watchmen's production with the goal of resolving the matter and allowing Warner Bros. to roll film with a clear conscience -- albeit one purchased, no doubt, at great expense.

Nonetheless, fanboy vitriol toward Fox for daring to meddle with a movie they have long wanted to see continues to this very day. Just check out aint-it-cool-news' report on Fox's victory; the site's message boards are currently chockablock with choice, colorful words aimed at Fox and its top exec, Tom Rothman, who has become an unpopular figure because of Fox's spotty track record with genre material under his leadership. Yes, many of them have been huge hits (X-Men; X-Men 3; I, Robot; Fantastic Four), but many of them haven't (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Daredevil, Elektra, The Day The Earth Stood Still), and with few exceptions (most notably, X-Men 2), none of them have made the hardcore sci-fi/comic book fans very happy due to the studio's penchant for short running times, stingy budgets, and adaptation choices designed to make the material more mainstream-friendly. For them, Fox's desire to lay claim to Watchmen gives them an excuse to vent. Some fans have even been calling for a boycott of Fox's Wolverine next summer if the lawsuit should effectively delay Watchmen's release indefinitely.

But does any of this really have anything to do with Watchmen? Absolutely not. With Feess' decision, Fox's lawsuit -- and its victory -- should be seen as an important move that really benefits all of Hollywood, as it affirms copyright laws that protect all studios. Fox deserves a break on Watchmen; according to Feess, their beef with Warner Bros. has always been legit.

How much will being right ultimately be worth to Fox? Perhaps a lot; perhaps nothing at all. Warner Bros. has been asking Feess to make one more crucial ruling in this case. The judge articulates the studio's request like this: "[T]o summarily adjudicate the issue of a contractual cap on the amount of compensatory damages to which Fox is entitled." Now, I am no lawyer, but here's how I might rephrase Warner Bros.' position: "Let's pretend for a moment that Fox is right in this matter. Judge, could you help us decide a fair price for Fox's rights? Because we can't." Perhaps all along, Warner Bros. has been gambling/banking that the judge will "adjudicate" a relatively affordable price for Fox's rights, or at least put a price tag on it that's much lower than the one Fox has been putting on it. As Feess has said that a longer version of his Christmas Eve ruling is forthcoming, perhaps the question of value will be determined at that time.

In the meantime, there are anxieties, questions, and theories: Will Warner Bros. appeal? If it does, Watchmen's release could be held up by months. If Warner Bros. doesn't appeal, what will Fox get in return? A cash payout per Gordon's original contract? A cash payout plus penalties? A share of Watchmen's total revenues? Might Warner Bros. settle the lawsuit by selling or ceding the film to Fox? If Fox got control of Watchmen, would they release Snyder's film in its current 2 hour 30 minute form, or would they order him to (gulp) trim it or (double gulp) make changes?

To be continued…

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