I’ve just learned tonight that the Fox Filmed Entertainment brass, because of the holiday, didn’t even know they had won! The New York Times’ Michael Cieply was first to get hands on today’s five-page written order issued by Gary A. Feess, a Los Angeles-based judge in the United States District Court for Central California, stating how he intends to rule soon in the closely watched case. I broke the news in August when Feess denied a Warner Bros motion to dismiss 20th Century Fox’s legal battle over the rights to develop, produce and distribute a highly anticipated film based on the graphic novel Watchmen written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Fox was seeking to enjoin Warner Bros from going forward with the project and releasing it in March 2009, and Feess back then refused to deep-six Fox’s lawsuit filed on February 12th. Everyone assumed there would be a trial starting in late Janury over the legal issues because Feess at an earlier hearing said he believed one was necessary to settle the case.
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.
This is a case where producer Larry Gordon’s hot property changed hands again and again since the late 1980s from Fox, to Universal, to Paramount, until finally to Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures which together went forward with the film. For some time now, WB execs have complained privately about what they say is Fox’s “opportunistic claim,” noting that 20th sat on its so-called rights for years while the property was developed by other studios. And that Fox even had an opportunity to re-acquire the project and passed. But 20th contends that it owns the distribution rights to any motion picture based on Watchmen and has held these rights for almost two decades based on agreements with producer Gordon and his related business entities. So Fox asserted claims against Warner Bros and its affiliates for copyright infringement and contractual interference. Meanwhile, the film moved forward. Warner Bros screened Watchmen footage at Comic-Con, premiered action figure toys, showcased the Nite Owl ship (photo right) used in the movie, and presented a panel with director Snyder, illustrator Gibbons, and the principal cast.
This isn’t the only controversy that in which Watchmen has been embroiled. Fans have long argued whether the comic series can even be called a graphic novel, since it was originally serialized in 12 issues. More recently, according to DHD’s geek entertainment expert, Luke Y Thompson (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!): “All the footage that has been shown has garnered high marks from fans. But director Zack Snyder’s admission that he’s changed the ending has rankled many. The book culminated in a grand scheme to end the Cold War by faking an alien invasion, using a genetically engineered squid-like monster that generated a psychic shockwave and decimated New York. Snyder has confirmed there is no squid, and he’s also been slightly dismissive about anyone who considers that such a big deal. The new ending appears to involve framing Dr. Manhattan for an attack, which on paper doesn’t sound quite right. With the WB/Fox lawsuit over the property still not settled, and just over two months to release, that could be an even bigger problem than calamari tentacles.”