As you may be aware, LA Judge Gary Allen Feess delivered a special Christmas Eve gift to Fox by abruptly announcing that they were the winners in the closely-watched WATCHMEN lawsuit. You’ll recall that even as Warner Bros. has been rolling out the eagerly awaited Zack Snyder film for a March 3 2009 release, Fox filed a lawsuit saying that Warners never had the rights to produce the film since producer Larry Gordon had not properly regained them from Fox. The suit has obviously threatened the planned release date and caused, at the very least, a few beads of worry sweat on WB execs’ brows over this real Christmas crumbler.
The judge’s decision came as a shock, since Feess had previously indicated that Warners and Fox should go to trial in early January. Nikki Finke has more:
But now Feess has abruptly done an about-face, saying he has reconsidered and concluded that Fox should prevail. So Feess intends to grant 20th Century Fox’s claim that it owns a copyright interest in the Warner Bros pic. “Fox owns a copyright interest consisting of, at the very least, the right to distribute the ‘Watchmen’ motion picture,” said today’s written order obtained by the NYT. (A more detailed order is coming soon, according to the court.) Such a ruling could screw up Warner Bros’ plans to release the pic as soon as March. Unless, of course, Fox is just looking for a single payout or share in the proceeds, either of which Barry Meyer and Alan Horn will have to fork over once all the legal fuss dies down. (Warner Bros had a similar problem with the Dukes Of Hazzard pic because of Judge Feess and had to pay tens of millions of dollars to release the film.) Indeed, the judge himself advised both Fox and Warner Bros to settle or appeal. “The parties may wish to turn their efforts from preparing for trial to negotiating a resolution of this dispute or positioning the case for review,” he said. But if WB goes down the appeal road, then Watchman may not come out until 2011 considering the glacial speed with which the court system moves.
Jeff Jensen at EW has the fullest account and most informed speculation on the decision, including the surprising nugget that, contrary to urban legend (see below), Fox HAD approached WB before the movie went into production. WB must have thought Fox was full of crap and went full steam ahead. Oh well. Jensen also has this scenario for how the two studios might settle:
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.
While the uncertainty over what was sure to be a high profile spring film has to come as a blow to WB’s halting (DARK KNIGHT aside) superhero movie efforts, fans would be the ultimate losers if this legal wrangling screws things up. Daniel O’Brien at cracked.com speaks for many with a colorful screed:
If you’re Fox, you patiently waited until the excitement over the movie reached a boner-inducing fever pitch, and then you decided to sue Warner Brothers and, according to the New York Times, you won. On Christmas Eve, a judge ruled that Fox has the right to, at the very least, distribute The Watchmen. Will they try to stop the release of the movie? Probably not, (though they certainly could). Will they try to change it? Again, no. Will they make some fat cash off of it? Certainly. Should they eat all the dicks? Without a doubt.