Less than a week before Matt and Ross Duffer are set to go to trial in a case about whether they lifted the notion for their Netflix series Stranger Things off another filmmaker, lawyers for both sides in the dispute were in court Thursday to limit the scope of what the jury will and will not be able to see and hear.
It turns out the jurors will see a lot less starting May 7 when it comes to how much Charlie Kessler says the Duffers hoovered up from his Montauk film and other material.
Specifically, the sit-down in Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Stern’s downtown courtroom today was supposed to focus on a slew of revealing documents the Duffers and Netflix want kept out of the public eye. There also were the sanctions that plaintiff Kessler’s lawyer S. Michael Kernan wanted placed on a “brazen” Matt Duffer for failing to show up with requested information and documents at his deposition earlier this week.
However, it was revealed early on today that Kessler’s team was now dramatically limiting the scope of the case after a deposition Wednesday didn’t go as planned.
Simply put, the plaintiff’s attorneys are turning the volume down on a number of issues, including comparing Kessler’s script and the Stranger Things pilot. This comes after the plaintiff’s lawyers’ own expert saw documents in his deposition that he admitted undermined his conviction that the Duffers didn’t create the Netflix series.
The plaintiff’s lawyers notified the defense of the culling of their claims late last night, attorneys for the Duffers told Stern in court this morning. Still, the Duffer Brothers are definitely on the witness list for the five-day trial, we’ve learned.
Otherwise both sides took a swipe in court on Thursday from the judge.
“Application to seal is denied,” Stern told the defendants in a blow to the Stranger Things team to keep travel for scouting and other data under lock and key. “I’m just not very good at sealing stuff,” he added, putting in motion a process that could see a good deal of info about Stranger Things that otherwise would have remained confidential made public.
As for the sanctions sought by Kessler’s attorney, following some mocking by Stern, Kernan withdrew the motion.
That dealt with, the status of a great deal of contentious material remains unresolved in the final days before the trial, much of which Stern said he will read next Tuesday.
In April 30 filings, the high-profile Duffers’ high-powered Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan attorneys sought to have the siblings “confidential, personal financial information, including information regarding their compensation on Stranger Things” sealed and kept out of the trial. Along with document on travel and more, the lawyers also want the Duffers’ multi-season Stranger Things “mythology document” excluded. Information on Kessler sending his script to the Duffers’ Paradigm agency and other evidence on the plaintiff’s career and upcoming work, like a Rosa Parks film he is producing, are expected to be addressed next week before the trial starts.
The rest of Thursday’s proceedings on the Stranger Things plagiarism case were spent tidying up other last-minute pre-trial matters and going over the procedures of the trial. To that end, the sides spent most of their time at the counsel’s table this morning discussing upcoming motions to seek witnesses “eliminated” Google Docs revisions, and what one attorney called “a cleaner way” to present evidence. Self-described “traffic cop” Stern also threw some shade on how current the court’s computer systems are, how he wanted to trim the questions the defendants’ lawyers submitted to ask potential jurors, and how he wanted evidence presented in as many exhibits as is required.
In his initial April 2, 2018 filing, Kessler claimed the pitched the concept for what became Stranger Things to the Duffer siblings at a 2018 Tribeca Film Festival party. To add meat on that bone, the Montauk director also declared that not long afterwards, he handed over “the script, ideas, story and film” to the duo. Kessler’s breach of implied contract suit asserts that the Duffers used his material to craft what became the Netflix series, which during its early stages went under the working title The Montauk Project.
As is the standard PR response in such David and Demogorgon cases, the Duffers almost immediately slammed the plaintiff’s case as “meritless” in April last year in the first of several efforts to shut it down – with “full support” from the streaming service.
Having said that, last month Stern declined to dismiss the case. In his ruling at the time, he said he would let the matter go to trial because the Duffers hadn’t provided significant evidence of “independent creation” that they came up with the idea for Stranger Things.
In that context, when the Duffer Brothers’ project with Netflix was first announced in 2015, it was called Montauk. With the name later changed for what one attorney in court today called likely “legal issues,” the project was also set in Long Island (it later shifted to Indiana), with other similarities to Kessler’s script including a missing boy, a nearby military base conducting experiments on children, and a monster from another dimension that looks like a toy.
In filings on April 30, Kessler asked the court to exclude Stranger Things the series from the trial and the jury. “The series was based on the pilot, but the series was written by an army of writers in one of Netflix’s writing rooms,” the motion attests.
“As such, the series is no longer even Defendants’ sole creation, but rather a collaborative work product of writers. Therefore, offering the series into evidence is wholly irrelevant as to whether Defendants’ stole Mr. Kessler’s ideas from his pitch, and subsequently used them in their pilot.”
No matter how this all ends next week or down the line on appeal, it is unlikely the endgame of this dust-up between the Duffers and Kessler will impact the launch of Stranger Things’ Season 3 on Netflix on Independence Day – but it could be awkward.