FXX Pilot Airing at 1:30 a.m. Leads to Eye-Opening Slander Lawsuit

The widow of the author of 'Wheel of Time' said she was "dumbfounded" when she learned of a stealth pilot this week, but a lawsuit says she had secret discussions with Sony and knew the deal.
Billy Zane, star of "Winter Dragon"  AP Photo/Alastair Grant

It's not often that The Hollywood Reporter misses a chance to review a new television series, but then again, TV networks don't usually premiere a series at 1:30 a.m. That's what happened on Monday when FXX debuted Winter Dragon, based upon the massively popular fantasy book series Wheel of Time. There's a reason why the pilot quietly arrived in the wee hours of the morning on Feb. 9 instead of a later date, and while many WOT fans were taken by surprise, a just-launched lawsuit against Harriet McDougal, widow of WOT author Robert Jordan, contends she knew the deal despite her comments posted online indicating otherwise.

WOT is a 14-volume series with a sprawling list of characters and the sort of fantasy mythology that lends comparison to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin. Given the success of Game of Thrones and the fact that this Hugo Award-nominated adventure has topped the New York Times best-seller list, it's hardly a surprise that rights have suddenly become quite hot, with major Hollywood studios circling the property.

The 1:30 a.m. airing has led to much discussion on forums like Reddit about what's happening, and the prevalent theory holds that it had something to do with the reversion of rights on Feb. 11 in the event that a show was never released. This appears to be true, though the finer details will be fussed over in a lawsuit filed on Thursday in California federal court.

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According to the complaint (read in full below), Manetheren LLC struck a deal in 2004 with Jordan (real name: James O. Rigney) for a film and television rights option to WOT for $35,000, giving the company until Jan. 11, 2013, to release something lest rights revert. Manetheren says it paid an additional $130,000 for extensions to the options term plus gave the author's company another $465,000 thereafter. The reversion date was extended to this past Wednesday.

Additionally, Red Eagle Entertainment, parent company of Manetheren, says it made an agreement with the author's company for a comic book adaptation, with the author's side agreeing to refrain from making any public statements that were contentious or disparaging to the other parties' projects based on the WOT property. Hold that in mind for a moment. It'll be coming up soon.

Manetheren made another deal in 2009 with Universal Pictures on Wheel of Time, but contrary to what's been reported by other news outlets, the lawsuit says the relationship ended and rights reverted in April 2014. Afterward, Manetheren says it began negotiations with Sony Pictures Television and Radar Pictures with the goal of developing a TV series.

It doesn't appear from the looks of the lawsuit that a deal with Sony was ever reached, but Winter Dragon starring Billy Zane came out just in time — time being a central facet in the book's mythology — so that Manetheren and Red Eagle held on to its rights.

After the bizarre 1:30 a.m. airing of Winter Dragon, a statement from McDougal, the author's widow, was posted on Facebook:  

"This morning brought startling news. A 'pilot' for a Wheel of Time series, the 'pilot' being called Winter Dragon, had appeared at 1:30 in the morning, East Coast time, on FXX TV, a channel somewhere in the 700s (founded to concentrate on comedy, according to the Washington Post). It was made without my knowledge or cooperation. I never saw the script. No one associated with Bandersnatch Group, the successor-in-interest to James O. Rigney, was aware of this. Bandersnatch has an existing contract with Universal Pictures that grants television rights to them until this Wednesday, February 11 – at which point these rights revert to Bandersnatch. I see no mention of Universal in the 'pilot.' Nor, I repeat, was Bandersnatch, or Robert Jordan’s estate, informed of this in any way. I am dumbfounded by this occurrence, and am taking steps to prevent its reoccurrence."  

The lawsuit presents an entirely different version of events.

According to the complaint, McDougal was invited to meet with Radar and Sony to discuss a series last July, and Sony provided her and an assistant with first-class air travel and hotel accommodations. McDougal was allegedly told by email about the expiration of the deal with Universal, and the widow is said to have had direct discussions with Sony about taking an active role as a consultant in the production.

"Her willingness to travel cross-country and personally attend this meeting encouraged Plaintiff to continue its efforts to make a deal with Sony, a major competitor for Universal," says the lawsuit. "She was also aware that Plaintiff had until February 11, 2015 to broadcast a television program in the United States to prevent a rights reversion to her and Defendant Bandersnatch."

Manetheren takes issue with how McDougal "disparagingly referred to the Pilot in quotation marks and cast doubt upon Plaintiffs' rights to produce the Pilot by unequivocally denying knowledge of those rights while asserting that Universal still possessed rights to produce the Program."

McDougal is now being sued for slander-of-title for making statements "with knowledge of their falsity" and for tortiously interfering with the company's contractual relationships and prospective economic advantage. Having paid the author's estate $630,000 for rights, the plaintiff is upset that "McDougal's public comments have harmed Manetheren's ability to enter into new contractual relationships, such as with Sony, both by calling into question the propriety of Manetheren’s rights in the Property and by causing public opinion to set against any film or television production that Manetheren might authorize."

The lawsuit also alleges breach of contract over the nondisparagement clause of the agreement with Red Eagle. Represented by attorneys at Freund & Brackey, the plaintiffs are seeking compensatory and exemplary damages.

The defendants declined comment for this story. It's easy to imagine that McDougal will have opportunity to present her own side of events in court soon, and the issue of whether Winter Dragon was a proper pilot may come up similar to the way Hasbro and Sweetpea Entertainment are currently in court at the moment on this issue of whether Dungeons & Dragons TV movies were proper "sequels" under a contract that had its own reversion clauses.

Winter Dragon was reportedly directed by James Seda, who according to Grantland and this Facebook page, died in a car accident just days ago. His final tweet?

Email: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner

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