Fox wins case against Warner Bros. over Watchmen rights

watchmen july 2008

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.

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7 Responses to “Fox wins case against Warner Bros. over Watchmen rights”

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  1. Aspen says:

    As a fan of the Watchmen comics, myself, this smacks of jealous retribution to me. THEY couldn’t film it. At the time, they had neither the talent nor the technology to do the film justice. Now…it’s been made, and by all appearances–I mean, it looks freaking brilliant from the trailer.

    Methinks the sour grapes phenomenon has Fox playing the part of a very rich and powerful petulant child. They could’ve brought all these issues to the fore long ago when the film was still in pre-production. They didn’t do that. They didn’t start bitching until it became clear that the product was going to be an unbelievable success. Fox said it couldn’t be done and shelved it. Now, they’re feeling a bit threatened.

    I hope they don’t delay the release of the movie. It looks to be quite an accomplishment.

  2. Jenna says:

    Jeffrey Dean Morgan, you are good to me.

  3. vdantev says:

    This movie could be so very very awesome !!

  4. Ohforf says:

    Does it matter if it’s sour grapes? If they own the rights, they own the rights. It’s not like the judge sided with Fox on a lark, the law is the law. It sounds like they knew they were breaking the law too.

  5. Jinxy says:

    It’s one of the stranger stories, that nobody caught any of this until it’s finished and ready to go in March? I didn’t pay as much attention to Nikki Finke’s coverage of this as I should have I guess.

  6. I hope they solve this problem in a way or another. I’m waiting for this movie so badly!

  7. FF says:

    FOX don’t have a money-winning comic book adaption franchise at the moment. WB has several – especially with The Dark Knight setting of the trend for ‘dark and edgy’ all over again.

    If FOX can grab one then they will.

    However the main reason for this is because FOX just don’t know how to nurture sci-fi as a genre. They always want the instant moneymaker and toss stuff if it doesn’t make what they want when they want. They do the same thing on their network – everytime they have a promising show it gets cancelled with in a year or two, or less.

    Right now they’re trying to get an Avengers movie going (hence the HULK remix last summer) but to be honest – who’s actually looking forward to a Thor movie? Sounds snoresome! The only reason Iron Man was interesting was because of RDJ (it certainly wasn’t because of Paltrow).

    All WB would have to do is pull out a Superman and Batman movie and it would be kind of be over.

    As for FOX – they’re lame, and they’re desperate. Cue pettiness.