WatchmenWatch: Judge Feess becomes the Grinch who stole Warners' Christmas

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WatchmenWatch: Judge Feess becomes the Grinch who stole Warners' Christmas

Fri Dec 26, 2008 @ 12:50AM PST

By Matthew Belloni

Watchmeninsignia Just when we thought the battle over the "Watchmen" movie would give us the first jury trial between major studios in many, many years, Judge Gary Feess issued his preliminary order on Christmas Eve. And Warner Bros. lawyers are likely crying in their eggnog.  

In short, Fees ruled that at the very least, Fox has a copyright interest in the film and a right to distribute it. Ouch. Here's the five-page rulingJ, which Fees described as a preview of a longer forthcoming order. 

In a nutshell, the ruling hinges on producer Lawrence Gordon's involvement in the project. Indeed, Feess first describes Fox's relationship with Gordon as "critical background" to understanding the agreements. Going back to the early '90s, Gordon was attached to the "Watchmen" project with the understanding that he'd produce the film. When he didn't, Warners claims that Fox's rights in the project ended. Feess disagrees.

Gordon was later presented with a Turnaround Notice from Fox that required him to pay a buy-out fee and agree to other terms in order to get the rights back, and he never complied with the terms. That, Feess reasons, gives Fox at the very least a continuing distribution right in the film.

So what now? Feess all but asks the parties to settle. But he doesn't say whether he'll issue an injunction. That would be the neutron bomb for Warners because it would impact the planned March 6 release. We'll be surprised if Warners doesn't appeal this thing ASAP. First, Feess changed his mind after initially saying these issues needed to be resolved by a jury. Second, there's an odd footnote in the ruling chastising Goron for his behavior at his deposition, perfect fodder for an argument that the judge stretched his authority after becoming annoyed with a Warners witness. And third, Warners has a bunch at stake. The studio isn't likely to pay up without a fight to the finish.   

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The Hollywood Reporter, Esq. blog focuses on how the entertainment and media industries are impacted and influenced by the law. It is edited by Matthew Belloni with contributions from veteran legal reporter Eriq Gardner and others. Before joining The Hollywood Reporter, Belloni was a lawyer at an entertainment litigation firm in Los Angeles. He writes a column for THR devoted to entertainment law. Gardner is a New York-based writer and legal journalist. Send tips or comments to Matthew.Belloni@thr.com

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