The battle over who will make the next Dungeons & Dragons movie finally had its day in court – though what the endgame is seems to be in dispute. “This lawsuit is a desperate and last-ditch attempt to recapture rights,” lawyer Patricia Glaser told a federal courtroom in LA today about toy company Hasbro’s long legal efforts to make a D&D movie. The company wants film rights to the hugely successful game so it can “sell it to their new best buddy, Universal,” the powerhouse Hollywood attorney added on behalf of her client, producer Sweetpea Entertainment, which claims it still owns rights to the iconic game.
In what looks like and smells more like a proxy war between Warner Bros and Comcast-owned Universal, Hasbro’s lead lawyer Maura Wogan insisted this morning that “Hasbro has no agreement with Universal; there is no signed agreement.” The remark in front of Glaser, Judge Dolly Gee and a room full of attorneys and Hasbro execs seemed to surprise many, though the NY-based lawyer made no secret this juryless trial was all about getting its big fantasy role playing game back up on the big screen. “Hasbro is seeking a declaration that the Dungeons & Dragons sequel rights revert to Hasbro,” Wogan summed up.
Wogan also said in her opening statement that producer Courtney Solomon’s Sweetpea “squandered those rights” by making “auto-sequels” and not understanding that the nearly 20-year-old agreement between the parties were a matter of “use it or lose it.” Claiming a “willingness to lie” on the part of Solomon when it came to doing business, she added, “Sweetpea was a terrible steward of a very valuable Hasbro brand.”
In a case that could have wide implications for what constitutes a sequel and how Hollywood develops or reboots franchises or branded IP, another issue is where do rights really end – especially if an agreement has not formally been terminated. The toy giant first filed its copyright and trademark infringement complaint against Solomon and Sweetpea in May 2013 to stop any new D&D movie or D&D-like movie it might be making with Warner Bros. Hasbro insists that despite Solomon and Sweetpea making an unsuccessful D&D feature in 2000 — and two sequels for the UK DVD market and Syfy in 2005 and 2010 — it did not meet the stipulated requirements to retain rights. Since the first filing last year has been back and forth on the docket with counterclaims and both sides seeking dismissal at one point. Cutting to the chase, Sweetpea says it has the rights to make any D&D sequel it wants with whomever it wants.
Judge Gee told the court at the beginning of the proceedings that “the real issue here is who owns the rights to the property.”
Even with this case moving toward today’s start, Warners quietly inked a multimillion-dollar deal with Sweetpea this summer for rights to the D&D property. While not a defendant in the case, the studio also put up around $1 million for legal costs in the matchup against Hasbro. Earlier this year, Gee ruled the Chainmail script Warner Bros had worked up back in 2012 in fact infringed on Hasbro’s D&D copyright, even though that screenplay never went anywhere. As reiterated today by Glaser, Solomon had nothing to do with that project and in fact only became aware of the independent move on Warners’ part after Hasbro execs told the studio that Sweetpea held “significant” rights on the property.
Hasbro actually passed on Chainmail or any other D&D project with Warner Bros before moving on to what seems to be talks, even unsigned, with Universal. Two studios hovering on the sidelines aside, what makes this more complicated in one sense is that this is a legacy deal unraveling: Sweetpea’s initial 1994 deal was with then-D&D owner TSR. Wizards Of the Coast bought that company in 1997, and Hasbro acquired that enterprise in 1999. Since 1999, Hasbro has been “doing everything in its power” to “undermine” the 1994 agreement, Glaser alleged today.
In a dense walk-through of the history of the parties — from the initial 1994 agreement to legal animosity and the first and second amendments of March and June 1998, respectively — Wogan today laid out her side’s argument that recognizing the rights was a matter of “what you pay and what you say.” The lawyer from Frankfurt Kurnit Klein and Selz told the court that because Sweetpea’s Silver Pictures partner in the contest sequels paid only $20,000 to Hasbro for the 2010 D&D: The Book Of Vile Darkness, it was not paying the required licensing amount for a movie proper. (Yes, that is Joel Silver’s Silver Pictures we’re taking about – which is why Silver Pictures exec Steve Richards is set to be called as a witness later this week.)
Glaser wasn’t having that argument. “The evidence will show that D&D 3 was a sequel,” she said, dismissing any semantics of distribution. She added that Hasbro even saw the script and signed off on it as well as extra material for the DVD. “Whether one wants to argue if the movies are very good, is not pertinent to why we are here,” Glaser noted. “Hasbro should not be allowed to come to the party late and rewrite history.”
The trial continued with first witnesses today and is expected to go on all this week. Solomon is on the witness list as is Warner Bros SVP Jun Oh about remarks a Hasbro exec made about the company’s and Sweetpea’s D&D movie rights. Among its witnesses, Hasbro intend to call former Sony legal exec Roger Tull to explain the common practices of holding onto and losing sequel rights in the movie biz.
Hasbro is primarily repped by Wogan and Jeremy Goldman of Frankfurt Kurnit Klein, with Michael Weinsten of LA’s Lavely & Singer PC. Glaser and David Sergenian of LA’s Glaser Weil Fink Jacobs Howard Avchen & Shapiro LLP are Sweetpea’s main litigation counsel.