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After a nasty public battle between media giants Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox, comic book fans can once again look forward to March 6. That is the day that Watchmen, a highly anticipated adaptation of Alan Moore’s popular graphic novel of the same name, hits theaters. Until recently, the film’s release was in doubt after Warner Brother’s spent about $130 million to shoot and film a movie for which it did not have the rights.
Last year, Fox sued Warner Brothers, claiming that it owned the rights to the film. The film had been in development since at least 1986 when Fox acquired the rights to adapt the graphic novel. The movie was never shot, and acquired an “almost mythic status in Hollywood as a project that could not be filmed” due to the dark nature of the story line. But following the success of dark comic book adaptations like The Dark Knight and 300, Warner Brothers jumped at the chance to have Zack Snyder, the director of 300 (another adaptation of a graphic novel) direct Watchmen.
Fox notified Warner Brothers of its rights position before the filming of Watchmen and sued in February 2008 as filming was wrapping up. Fox argued that Larry Gordon, the producer who brought Watchmen to Warner Brothers after failed attempts to get it made at Fox, Universal, and Paramount Studios, failed to exercise his option to purchase Fox’s interest in the film. A federal judge agreed, found that Fox retained the distribution rights to the film, and scheduled a hearing for January 20, 2009, to determine whether to issue an injunction to prevent Warner Brothers from releasing the film.
Luckily for fans, the two studios reached a settlement in which Warner Brothers gets to release the film as planned, and without the Fox logo. Fox will get a cash payment to cover not only its development costs associated with the film, but also to repay the studio for legal fees expended in the battle. More lucratively, Fox will also get a percentage of the gross receipts of the film’s world-wide revenue, which includes revenue generated by any spin-offs or sequels. The settlement also purportedly included some interesting deals between the two studios, including that Warner Brothers will allow actor Steve Carell to film a movie with 30 Rock star Tina Fey, which is something it could have blocked by exercising Carell’s option to film a sequel to Get Smart.
The real question about this expensive and drawn out legal battle is: How did this happen? As Scott Mendelson at The Huffington Post points out:
Fox spent just $1.4 million in development fees on the Watchmen project before it was put in turnaround. Had Warner just done their basic, entertainment law 101-level homework, they could have just cut a check for $1.4 million a couple years ago and saved themselves quite a bit of headache and drama.
Mendelson is right when he points out that Warner Brothers’ legal department messed up royally when it failed to ensure that Warner owned the rights of the film before the studio began production, and that a legal malpractice suit is probably in the works. What is the lesson from this entire debacle? With the economy in a tail spin, it might make sense to double check and make sure you are allowed to make a film in the first place before spending $130 million on the production.
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