Warner Brothers says it is not changing the scheduled March 20th release date for Watchmen, but that’s just negotiating. A federal court says that Warners doesn’t have the right to distribute the movie because that right was granted 20 years ago to Twentieth Century Fox. Now Warners and Fox are spending the Christmas weekend at the negotiating table and Warners has a $100 million gun to its head.
After Warners spent the estimated $100 million to make the Watchmen movie, Fox went to court and said its original contract gave Fox the right to distribute any film developed from the Watchmen graphic novel. The first round in the legal battle ended on Wednesday, when Los Angeles district court judge Gary Feess issued a preliminary ruling that the contract was still valid and that Fox had the right to distribute Watchmen.
The judge had set the case down for a trial to start next month, but he cut short the legal battle by handing down a surprise, five page decision saying that Fox was going to win the crucial issue in the case so no trial was needed. The judge also told both sides to stop preparing for trial and start talking settlement.
There is no final order yet, and Warners can’t appeal the decision until there is one. Even an emergency appeal, though, couldn’t be decided in time to permit Warner’s massive advertising and marketing campaign to proceed on schedule. The film will get released one way or the other – there is too much invested at this point for Warners to shelve it just to spite Fox, but the March 20th date could be in doubt. The question is how hard Fox will squeeze Warners. If business minds prevail, Fox will be reasonable because this is found money, Warners will pay up, the release date will be preserved and the public will get to see the movie on time. It is no coincidence that the judge forced the parties to the negotiating table on the day before Christmas Eve, when everyone will be feeling the pressure to get a deal done.
One small bright spot for any LA lawyers who have fallen victim to the recent layoffs – there will presumably be some openings soon in the legal department at Warner Brothers.