Battle Over L.A. Alien Invasion Films

EXCLUSIVE: A real battle is brewing between rival aliens-invade-Los Angeles films Skyline and Battle: Los Angeles.  Sony Pictures Entertainment, the studio behind the big budget Battle: Los Angeles, is exploring its legal options. At issue: Greg and Colin Strause, the owners of visual effects house Hydraulx, were paid millions of dollars to generate visual effects work for Battle: Los Angeles. But Hydraulx never informed SPE the siblings were directing a VFX-driven rival alien invasion feature that will hit theaters four months before SPE’s March 12, 2011 release. SPE higher-ups  discovered it was in a real horse race after Universal Pictures released a trailer that showed Los Angeles denizens being vacuumed into the sky by hovering space ships.

SPE lawyers have just started digging into the matter. This can be viewed as a Goliath vs. David story considering that the Strause brothers shot most of their film in an apartment, with the entire film costing a fraction of what SPE has spent for a full-scale alien battle film. But Skyline created strong buzz at Comic-Con that will give it a wide release through Relativity and Universal Pictures. Battle: Los Angeles could certainly have its thunder stolen. At issue: did Hydraulx and its owners owe SPE a heads-up?

And is SPE trying to create a legal issue with a film that can’t afford it, to leverage a release date change that delays Skyline?

Hydraulx Filmz is a major VFX company for commercials and cutting-edge visual films that have included Avatar, 300, Terminator 3, The Day After Tomorrow, Constantine, X-Men: The Last Stand, and the SPE hit 2012. Hydraulx was hired by SPE in early 2009 to be one of the primary VFX vendors on Battle: Los Angeles. That gave Hydraulx access to proprietary information that included script drafts, storyboards, and pre-viz animatics. The Strause brothers had already seen the Battle: Los Angeles script, I’m told, because they were considered as potential directors.

Now, Skyline didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. Deadline exclusively splashed a story in May about the film when Relativity Media acquired the picture–Brett Ratner was the catalyst and is a producer–at a time when IM Global’s Stuart Ford  had brokered deals for most major world territories. I reported the plot—four friends return from a night of hard partying to down L.A., slowly realize they are among a small group of survivors after most of humanity was wiped out by a deadly unknown force, and I mentioned an “extraterrestrial twist.”

Sources said that SPE looked at the film at that time. But SPE legal only to delve into the conflict of interest issue after Comic-Con. One day after SPE previewed a Battle: Los Angeles trailer and introduced its cast, Universal Pictures debuted its Skyline trailer, with the Strause brothers presiding over a panel.

Making the situation even more incestuous is that Battlefield: Los Angeles is part of the slate financing deal that Ryan Kavanaugh’s Relativity has with SPE, and he acquired Skyline.

Skyline will be released November 12 by Universal. I’m told the questions that SPE legal are asking include whether Hydraulx’s work on Battle: Los Angeles served as a springboard for Skyline, or gave the Strause brothers access to equipment that helped bolster the visual effects on their small budget film. SPE’s position is that at minimum, the Hydraulx principals should have disclosed their intention to make the rival project, to avoid any conflict of interest issues. Expect the legal letters to begin flying shortly.

A rep for the Strause issued a statement: “Any claims of impropriety are completely baseless. This is a blatant attempt by Sony to force these independent filmmakers to move a release date that has long been set by Universal and Relativity and is outside the filmmakers’ control.” SPE declined comment as did Relativity.

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