New moves in epic 'Superman' case

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New moves in epic 'Superman' case

Tue Sep 28, 2010 @ 09:52AM PST

By Matthew Belloni and Eriq Gardner

Superman EXCLUSIVE: As Warner Bros. inches closer to finding a director for its planned "Superman" reboot, the epic legal battle over the Man of Steel keeps getting nastier.

Warners filed a stack of legal papers the size of a tall building last night trying to persuade a judge to keep alive its claims against Marc Toberoff, the lawyer for the Siegel and Shuster families, who Warners claims improperly interfered with its key rights deals with the families.

6a00d83451d69069e20133edba6e56970b As you'll recall, the heirs of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster acted to terminate the rights to Superman in 1997. Four years later, the parties were close to a settlement before Joanne Siegel fired her lawyers and hired Toberoff, who then filed a lawsuit against Warners. In a bombshell 2008 decision, a federal judge ruled that the notice of termination was valid, meaning that certain Superman rights would revert to the Siegel estate in 2011 and the Shuster estate in 2013. The clock was ticking.

Warners wasn't going to just roll over. With the help of an internal Superman "timeline" that was secretly dropped on the studio's doorstep by a former Toberoff associate, in May it launched an aggressive counterattack with a new lawsuit against Toberoff and his clients, alleging the lawyer manipulated the families into repudiating their deals with Warners-owned DC Comics and entering into deals that would give Toberoff almost half the revenue from the property. 

Toberoff responded by filing several motions to dismiss the case, including an anti-SLAPP motion that argued the studio was only trying to "delay the final reckoning" by employing a "desperate and cynical strategy." He also tried to get the "timeline" covered by a protective order, but that effort was denied. 

Now, in four separate oppositions filed by Warners attorney Dan Petrocelli and a team from O'Melveny & Myers, the studio says Toberoff is trying to shield himself from liability for interfering with his clients' contracts with the studio by saying he was merely a lawyer doing his job.

Warners says that its claims in the lawsuit "unmistakenly and unambiguously challenge Toberoff's business practices, not his practice of law," according to the court papers

The studio claims that Toberoff engineered a series of "consent agreements" with the Siegel and Shuster families that both interfered with its rights as well as put Toberoff and his entertainment companies in the position to reap huge dividends from a new copyright assignment. In one of his own voluminous motions, Toberoff points out that the terminations were lawful and scoffs that the families had any obligation to give Warners an exclusive first crack at regaining control over the properties.

A hearing date in the case is set for Oct. 18, although there's a chance the court could be so overwhelmed by the legal paperwork that there will be a delay. Depositions, including those of the Siegels, Shusters and Toberoff himself, are scheduled to begin in mid-November. The future of the "Superman" empire, hundreds of millions of dollars, and perhaps even the future of power in Hollywood will be at stake.

UPDATED: We initially miscounted the oppositions as five instead of four and referred to them as motions. Apologies. 

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The Hollywood Reporter
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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