Back in the 1980′s, Fox bought up the rights to several movie titles, including the Watchmen comic. (Sidenote: twice, Terry Gilliam (The Brothers Grimm, Monty Python) tried to adapt the comic book to the big screen but ultimately deemed it unfilmable.) In 1991, Fox entered into a contract with Largo Entertainment, quitclaiming its rights to the film with the understanding that if Largo decided to make the movie, Fox would distribute it.
In 1994, Fox and Largo entered another agreement that would allow Largo to buy full rights from Fox. In 2006, Warner Brothers bought the film from Largo. But now Fox is saying that Largo never paid the studio according to the 1994 agreement, and that therefore the rights to distribute the film belong to Fox, not Warner Bros. Further, they claim that Warner Bros. acted knowing full well who the rights actually belonged to.
On Christmas Eve, a judge sided with Fox, leading to many jokes about coal in Warner Bros. stocking:
In a surprise ruling, a federal judge in Los Angeles said he intended to grant 20th Century Fox’s claim that it owns a copyright interest in the “Watchmen,” a movie shot by Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures and set for release in March.
The decision was disclosed in a five-page written order issued on Wednesday. Gary A. Feess, a judge in the United States District Court for Central California, said he would provide a more detailed order soon.
Fox has been seeking to prevent Warner from releasing the film. The superhero adventure, based on the “Watchmen” graphic novel, is being directed by Zack Snyder (who also directed “300”) and has shaped up as one of most eagerly anticipated releases for next year.
A Warner spokesman, Scott Rowe, declined to comment on the ruling and the studio’s plans.
At an earlier hearing, the judge said he believed that issues in the case could be settled only at a trial, which was scheduled for late January. On Wednesday, however, Judge Feess said he had reconsidered and concluded that Fox should prevail on crucial issues.
“Fox owns a copyright interest consisting of, at the very least, the right to distribute the ‘Watchmen’ motion picture,” the ruling said.
[from Comic Book Movie]
Fox is also now seeking an injunction against the March 2009 release of the film, which stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Carla Gugino. This is clearly a story about corporate greed (on both studios’ parts), but there are three really big questions here:
1) Did Warner Bros. really know that Largo didn’t own the rights to Watchmen?
2) Did Largo know that they had not fulfilled the 1994 contract according to Fox?
3) Was Fox planning on suing Warner Bros. if the movie turned out to be a bomb?
It would be one thing if the filming or early production on the movie was halted due to legal concerns, but this seems pretty late in the game. You have to wonder if Fox was just waiting until footage of the film (in the form of trailers, etc.) to see the fans respond. Watchmen is a really famous comicbook, so fan reactions are going to be either incredibly supportive or incredibly concerned. So far, press from the fanbase has been mostly positive. It seems that Warner Bros. has been careful to stay true to the comic as far as they could, especially in the form of costuming and sets (which is all we can really analyze at this point). If the reaction had been negative, it wouldn’t have been worth Fox’s time or money to sue.
It will also be interesting to see if Fox is successful in stopping the release of the film. That will make a lot of fans very upset, and won’t make Fox a lot of friends. No matter who owns the rights to the film, a lot of people have been waiting a very long time for this movie.
Picture note by JayBird:Here are some stills from the “Watchmen”. Images thanks to WENN.