'Friday the 13th' Rights at Stake in Lawsuit Over Horror Classic

Screenwriter Victor Miller aims to terminate a copyright grant, but a successor of the film's producer asserts the screenplay was a work-made-for-hire.
Everett Collection

The screams are now coming from a federal court in Connecticut, where a lawsuit was filed on Wednesday that will determine who holds rights and may license new film versions of the horror-film classic Friday the 13th

On one side of the battle is Victor Miller, who wrote the story for the original 1980 film and is credited with coming up with the characters for the many sequels and reboots. According to a complaint, he is looking to take advantage of a provision in copyright law that allows authors to terminate a grant of rights and reclaim ownership.

However, as many authors have learned (particularly those who once freelanced for Marvel Comics), those termination rights aren't foolproof. If someone contributes material as a work-made-for-hire, then it's the employer who is seen as the true statutory author with no possibility of rights termination.

Here, Horror, Inc. and the Manny Company are the plaintiffs, claiming in their lawsuit that Miller wrote Friday the 13th as a work-made-for-hire. Specifically, they say that in 1979, Sean Cunningham had the idea to capitalize on the success of the then-recently released horror film Halloween and went to Miller, with whom he had previously worked on a film titled Here Come the Tigers, to develop this idea.

"Miller had never written a horror screenplay prior to his being hired by Cunningham and was guided in the process, and directly supervised, by Cunningham," asserts the complaint. "Accordingly, Miller entered into an employment agreement with the Manny Company pursuant to which Miller wrote a screenplay for the Film as a work for hire (the 'Screenplay')."

Georgetown Productions, a predecessor company of the plaintiff, is said to have taken the "bold risk" to finance the production in exchange for Manny Company's assignment of rights. This happened, according to the complaint, after Cunningham had come up with the idea for a Friday the 13th film and took an ad out in Daily Variety to see if anyone was interested in funding the proposed film. As distributors called, Cunningham and Miller "began furiously working on the development of the Screenplay," says the lawsuit.

Thirty-six years later, Miller is trying to grab ahold of rights with notices sent in June seeking termination effective on July 2018. The copyright registration listed Georgetown as the author, though Miller's contract doesn't have "work for hire" written anywhere on it.

"As a result of Miller’s improper actions, a cloud has been placed on Horror's rights in and to the popular and lucrative Friday the 13th movie franchise and has caused, and will continue to cause, both Horror and the Manny Company significant damages," states the complaint. "In addition to seeking a declaration of the parties' respective rights, the Manny Company seeks a determination that Miller has materially breached the Employment Agreement, has slandered Horror's title in Friday the 13th, and has engaged in unfair trade practices."

The plaintiffs are represented by Bonnie Eskenazi and Julia Haye at Greenberg Glusker plus local counsel. Here's the full complaint.

The Hollywood Reporter has reached out to Miller for comment and will update with any new information.

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