Word out of Hollywood is that Fox and Warner Brothers might be close to a settlement in their rights dispute over the Watchmen movie. Per Film Esq., both studios filed a Notice of Settlement Status and Request for Further Hearing yesterday, with a request for a trial today to either announce their settlement terms or decide how to proceed to the scheduled January 20th injunction hearing.
If a settlement is imminent, it will bring a long and arduous, nearly year-long legal battle to a close and may finally end the 22 year struggle to bring the seminal graphic novel to the big screen.
The film rights to the landmark Watchmen miniseries were picked up by producer Lawrence Gordon back in 1986, the same year the series ended its twelve issue run. Gordon brought the project to 20thCentury Fox, partnered with superproducerJoel Silver. Terry Gilliam was attached to direct with stars such as Robin Williams, Richard Gere and Arnold Schwarzenegger in mind for roles in the film. The project got as far as the script stage (Batman scribe Sam Hamm submitted a version dated September 8, 1988) before Fox placed the project in turnaround in 1991.
Gordon, thinking the rights reverted fully back to him, took the project to Warner Brothers. The project stalled at the studio this first time due to budgetary concerns, concerns which caused Gilliam to leave the project and dub the comic “unfilmable.”
In 2001, Gordon brought the project to Universal Studios with X-Men screenwriter David Hayter tapped to write and direct this version of the film. The project remained at Universal until October 2003 when there was a falling out between the producers and studio.
The film’s next incarnation happened when it moved to Paramount Pictures in 2004. Hayter was out as director, replaced first by Darren Aronofsky and then, later, by Paul Greengrass. This was the closest the project came to being done, as Paramount started negotiating with actors (notable names this time around were Simon Pegg, Daniel Craig, Jude Law, and Joaquin Phoenix) and even went so far as to establish a promotional website for the film. However, a regime change, in addition to those pesky budget issues, killed the project once again.
In December of 2005, the project once again returned to Warner Brothers. Greengrass was out, as was Hayter’s script (although new writer Alex Tse took much of his script from Hayter’s). Zach Snyder was set to direct. Finally, the Watchmen movie was a go. Then the legal action began.
Fox wasn’t first into the breach in this legal battle. That honor belongs to Paramount, who believed they still held rights to the project. This instance never reached the courtroom as the matter was settled out of court. Paramount owns 25% of the film and the rights to distribute it overseas.
Fox filed suit over the rights in February 2008. At issue are two agreements Gordon signed with Fox, one in 1991 and another in 1994. Gordon believes these agreements give him full rights to the Watchmen film and Fox right of first refusal. Which, apparently, as per an open letter another producer of Watchmen, Lloyd Levin, sent movie site Hitfix, Fox employed:
From my point of view, the flashpoint of this dispute, came in late spring of 2005. Both Fox and Warner Brothers were offered the chance to make Watchmen. They were submitted the same package, at the same time. It included a cover letter describing the project and its history, budget information, a screenplay, the graphic novel, and it made mention that a top director was involved.
And it’s at this point, where the response from both parties could not have been more radically different.
The response we got from Fox was a flat “pass.” That’s it. An internal Fox email documents that executives there felt the script was one of the most unintelligible pieces of shit they had read in years. Conversely, Warner Brothers called us after having read the script and said they were interested in the movie – yes, they were unsure of the screenplay, and had many questions, but wanted to set a meeting to discuss the project, which they promptly did. Did anyone at Fox ask to meet on the movie? No. Did anyone at Fox express any interest in the movie? No. Express even the slightest interest in the movie? Or the graphic novel? No.
However, Fox’s take on the agreements was that they gave Gordon the right to buy back the rights, which he never did, but they would retain right of first refusal if that ever happened. More importantly, the courts seem to agree side with fox in this matter.
On December 24th, 2008, Judge Gary A. Feess gave Warners one of the worst Christmas presents ever. He ruled that Fox had “a copyright interest consisting of, at the very least, the right to distribute the ‘Watchmen’ motion picture,” and advised that the studios “may wish to turn their efforts from preparing for trial to negotiating a resolution of this dispute or positioning the case for review.”
There has been a lot of public saber rattling from both sides–Warners saying they will appeal the decision, all the while continuing a high-profile marketing campaign for the film, Fox saying they would stop at nothing less than having the film permanently shelved. But, while this war of words was going on, settlement negotiations began in earnest the Monday after the judge issued his decision. We’ll see if this intense bargaining bore any fruit later today.
Anything can still happen and we could still be heading to that injunction trial next week. But I think its likely a settlement will happen. Comic book movies are big and there has been none more highly anticipated, both by comic fans and the general public, than Watchmen. I doubt that either studio wants to miss out on a potential big payday. And in Hollywood, it really is all about the money.