WB, Fox tussle over 'Watchmen' rights

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"Watchmen" could find itself in court before it arrives at the multiplex.

Warner Bros. is scheduled to release Zack Snyder's big-screen adaptation of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons comics series March 6, but a federal judge in Los Angeles complicated that plan Wednesday when he refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Fox against Warners over rights to the property.

Judge Gary Allen Feess ruled that Fox has established enough evidence to support its claims that it holds the distribution rights to the film version of the 1980s graphic novel about damaged superheroes.

Asserting what it calls its "long-standing motion picture rights" to "Watchmen," Fox said Monday that it will ask the court to "enjoin the release of the Warner Bros. film and any related 'Watchmen' media that violate our copyright interests in that property."

Warners has high hopes for "Watchmen," a potential franchise film with a reported $120 million budget. The studio does not want to mess with success — it released Snyder's previous big-screen effort, "300," in March 2006, and that went on to gross more than $450 million worldwide.

Warners counters that Fox has no rights to the project. "The court's ruling simply means that the parties will engage in discovery and proceed with the litigation," it said. "The judge did not opine at all on the merits, other than to conclude that Fox satisfied the pleading requirements."

Fox sued Warners for copyright infringement and interference with its contract rights under a 1991 agreement between Fox and Largo Entertainment producer Larry Gordon.

Under that deal, Fox "quit-claimed" its rights in "Watchmen" to Largo, with the understanding that if the production company proceeded with a big-screen version of the comic, then the movie would be distributed by Fox.

In 1994, Gordon negotiated with Fox "a turnaround notice" that established a buyout formula for the studio if he elected to acquire Fox's rights. But according to Fox, Gordon failed to follow the 1994 agreement.

In 2006, Warners negotiated a quitclaim contract with Gordon, under which it claims to have acquired the "Watchmen" rights.

Fox contends that it has retained its rights because Gordon failed to buy out the studio. It says Warners turned a blind eye to Fox's rights. Warners, however, says under the 1994 deal, Fox gave away its rights.

Feess found that Warners' motion to dismiss ignored several facts, including the fact that the turnaround notice separately dealt with "Watchmen" and that there is nothing in the court record that shows Gordon has an interest in the project. (partialdiff)
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