EXCLUSIVE: Parkes + Macdonald and Image Nation Abu Dhabi have acquired exclusive rights from the Cousteau Foundation to develop a film and/or TV series based on iconic French naval explorer Jacques Cousteau. This is a pretty big deal as the Cousteau Society, which oversees the legendary conservationist’s legacy, has traditionally been very protective over his image.

As well as co-developing the Aqua-lung, Cousteau pioneered naval exploration. He published his first and arguably most successful book, The Silent World: A Story Of Undersea Discovery And Adventure, in 1953. He went on to direct a feature-length adaptation, The Silent World, which he co-produced with Louis Malle. It won a Palme d’Or at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. Both the film and the book were a global phenomenon, and Cousteau remained the only person to win Cannes’ top prize for a documentary until Michael Moore won in 2004 for Fahrenheit 9/11.

Following his success with The Silent World, Cousteau continued his sea odyssey. In 1966, he created the TV series The Undersea World Of Jacques Cousteau that ran for a decade and helped cement him as a household name around the world, replete with the iconic red bonnet. It is a measure of how protective the Cousteau Society is of his image that years later, Disney had to pay out a six-figure settlement after Wes Anderson dressed Bill Murray in a similar hat in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.  In 1973, Cousteau created the Cousteau Society for the Protection of Ocean Life. It now has more than 300,000 members.

“I think I first heard about it through Michael Bronner, who has been involved with a lot of Paul Greengrass films, and is an expert in this kind of intersection of real-world politics and adventure,” Parkes tells Deadline. “Cousteau’s early life is so fascinating: the rivalry with the brother, the fact that one of them was a hero for the resistance while the other was a collaborator. So we’re exploring the story and getting deep into the research.”

No writer has been set but this is likely to attract A-list talent given the tremendously rich life Cousteau lived, as well as the cinematic scope the story offers by virtue of his underwater adventures. The project also casts something of a shadow over the French-language production The Odyssey, which recently wrapped. That project is directed by Jerome Salle and stars Lambert Wilson as Cousteau. The film is based on the book by Cousteau’s son Jean-Michel, My Father, The Captain. Wild Bunch, TF1, Canal + and the Orange Film Channel are aboard the project, which has raised the ire of the Cousteau Foundation, which says the filmmakers do not have the necessary rights to make the film and exploit Jacques Cousteau’s image or likeness.

The conflict stems from a permanent injunction placed on Jean-Michel after he was found guilty of attempting to commercially exploit the Jacques Cousteau name, the rights of which, along with his likeness and lifetime work, is held by the Cousteau Society in an exclusive, worldwide license. According to sources close to the Cousteau Society, despite numerous attempts to contact the filmmakers to inform them of this breach, no attempt to resolve the matter has been forthcoming.

“I don’t think the filmmakers want to see the paperwork that shows they don’t have the rights,” says a source close to the Cousteau Society. “There is a permanent legal injunction. The paperwork exists to prove this but they have refused to see the documents.”

Marc Missonier, one half of Fidelite Films, which is producing the film along with partner Olivier Delbosc, refutes those claims.

Cousteau Society Logo“We have a lot of respect for the Cousteau Society and we have no intention of endangering their rights,” Missonier said. “Jacques Cousteau is a public figure and the son has the right to tell the story of the father. We have an open door for the Cousteau Society and we want this film to be a tribute to this great figure.”

The Cousteau Society is prepared to take legal action against The Odyssey to protect any infringement on its rights. That situation is likely to benefit nobody. It seems less than optimal, to say the least, for a film about Jacques Cousteau to find itself on the receiving end of legal action by the very organization that was created to protect his legacy.

“I don’t know enough about the legal ins and outs to make a definitive judgement but from a purely moral point of view, the whole thing seems wonky,” said one film exec with knowledge of the matter. “It just doesn’t make sense to me why those filmmakers would want to go against the Cousteau Society, especially when Cousteau himself is such a revered figure in France.”

As for the Parkes + Macdonald-Image Nation project, the chain of title appears to be a lot more straightforward.

“We’ve done our due diligence and had our counsel look at the documents and we are quite satisfied we have the sole and exclusive right to explore and exploit this story,” Parkes said.