Frowny Face: Sony Pictures Faces Legal Spat Over 'The Emoji Movie'

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The studio is going full speed ahead on the film dated for 2017. Only problem: A former video game executive who lives in Germany might have all the merchandise trademarks for it.

Marco Husges was on vacation in Croatia in 2013 when inspiration struck. "For some reason, 'emoji' came into my mind," says the German former video game executive. So he was the first to file for commercial trademarks for the word around the world in a first-come, first-served competition. (Emoji were created by mobile-phone operators in Japan in the late 1990s.)

Husges, 45, doesn't own the rights to the wildly popular digital icons on phones and social media, but as founder of The Emoji Co., he also created more than 3,000 of his own icons and trademarked and licensed them for use on an array of merchandise. Husges also trademarked such titles as "emojiplanet" and "emojitown."

So Husges says he was surprised when Sony Pictures Animation announced The Emoji Movie, dated for August 2017. Sony, which just released The Angry Birds film based on the mobile game, bought the project last summer based on a pitch by Eric Siegel and Anthony Leondis; the latter is to direct with Michelle Raimo Kouyate producing.

In October, Sony filed applications for dozens of trademarks in connection with its project, but those were rejected in February. Yet on April 12, Sony Pictures Animation president Kristine Belson talked up The Emoji Movie to theater owners at CinemaCon. "Inside your phone, there's a secret world … Emoji Valley, where the industrious Emoji live and work," she said.

Wherever they live, Husges thinks a project called The Emoji Movie may violate his trademarks. "I am curious how Sony would want to produce a movie under that name and do accompanying merchandising, especially given the fact our brand has already been successfully established with license partners and retailers all over the world," he says from Germany. "Sony's trademark application in the U.S. has been rejected, while ours are all registered and actively in use." Husges also is planning his own entertainment initiative. "This was always the logical step," he says. "First get into the marketplace and then TV series, web episodes and movies." He has teamed with producers Roy Lee (The Lego Movie) and Adrian Askarieh (Hitman). Says Lee: "Emojis are such an iconic brand worldwide that if we develop a great story to support it, I believe whatever we create has as much potential as other movies based on well-known properties, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Minions and, of course, Lego."

Husges declined to outline what specific steps he might take in the event that The Emoji Movie proceeds. 

Meanwhile, one studio insider tells THR that the campaign for the film is still taking shape, though Sony has hired a licensing company — Plus Licens — that has listed the project on its website. The person notes that the movie is not officially titled, though the word "emoji" will be included, and no formal start date has been set.

A Sony spokeswoman says the studio is undeterred and moving ahead: "We have full confidence in our rights as we make the film we've always intended to make."

A version of this story first appeared in the June 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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