John Steinbeck Heirs Now Feuding Over Steven Spielberg 'Grapes of Wrath' Adaptation

Is a decades-old war over rights to legendary literary properties coming to a big ruling?
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Over the years, major Hollywood studios have flirted with making new adaptations of John Steinbeck's major works including The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and East of Eden. But the long-running, messy dispute among the author's heirs has provided a headache for any film producer daring to move forward. On Friday, new court papers were filed that put alleged interference on movie deals front-and-center, including a Steven Spielberg adaptation of Grapes of Wrath potentially starring Daniel Day-Lewis.

On one side of the battle are those who succeeded Elaine Steinbeck, the author's late third wife, who was the primary beneficiary of copyrights in her husband's will. In particular, Elaine's daughter, Waverly Scott Kaffaga, and agents at McIntosh & Otis see themselves as being entitled to controlling Steinbeck's literary properties thanks to the will and later settlement agreements.

Then, there's the author's children, particularly Thom Steinbeck — who made a deal in 1983 for royalties — and his wife Gail Knight Steinbeck, who have fought for authority and a greater share. Thanks to the complexities of copyright law, particularly termination rights, their contentions have been the subject of numerous legal fights, including a big 2008 decision at the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals as well an aborted petition before the California Labor Commissioner.

The Kaffaga camp now wants the legal madness to end. They are pushing for a judge to send a message to the Thom Steinbeck clan. 

"In sum, the overwhelming and uncontroverted evidence demonstrates that Defendants have flouted the 1983 Agreement and the judicial decisions that have repeatedly concluded that the Estate holds the complete power and authority to control the exploitation of the Steinbeck Works," states a summary judgment brief. "It is time to put a halt to Defendants’ harmful and lawless conduct once and for all."

According to Kaffaga, Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment tendered a financial offer in 2013 for film rights to East of Eden. Then, Gail threatened legal action and brought the California Labor Commissioner asserting that RWSG Literary Agency, a sub agent to McIntosh & Otis, was acting unlicensed.

"Gail also spoke to Anna Culp, an executive producer at Imagine who, along with Brian Grazer from Imagine, was publicly reported as attached to the planned Universal/Imagine adaptation," states the brief. "Gail admitted that, in her conversation with Culp, she threatened that Thom and Blake would terminate film rights in East of Eden, stated that Universal/Imagine needed to speak to Gail because M&O did not represent Defendants, and 'put Brian Grazer on notice that we needed to sit down at the table.' If Imagine did not comply, she warned that, 'somebody could get in trouble.'”

In 2014, Universal and Imagine abandoned its East of Eden project, according to M&O, because of “major concerns” about the “constant threat of litigation."

Meanwhile, on behalf of Kaffaga and the Estate, M&O was negotiating with DreamWorks for an adaptation of Grapes of Wrath for Spielberg with Day-Lewis attached. Gail is said to have learned about this in 2013, then allegedly began to interfere before a confidential "side deal" was made. "Defendants engaged in a concerted campaign to undermine the Estate’s authority over the exploitation of Steinbeck Works and succeeded in extracting their own payment from DreamWorks at the expense of the Estate," states the summary judgment memorandum. "This exorbitant payment that Defendants extracted from DreamWorks reduced the overall amount payable to the Estate."

Besides the claimed interference, Gail and Thom are accused of exploiting Steinbeck works without true authority. One of the examples given by plaintiffs is that Thom authored a screenplay adapted from his father's novella, The Pearl, and pursued a distribution agreement with Disney and others. Another is granting film rights to the Steinbeck short story, The Flight. Then there's word of how Gail or Thom granted permission to a Congressional candidate to use passages from Grapes of Wrath in a campaign advertising, "concealed their identity to obtain film rights to The Moon Is Down," and told James Franco's CAA agent that the actor/filmmaker could have rights to Tortilla Flat.

The Kaffaga side asserts that their adversaries have already had a full opportunity to litigate their intellectual property theories, have made deals giving them as much financial benefit as they are going to get and now want the judge to hold defendants liable for breach of contract, tortious interference and slander of title. They aim to get the judge to also make a declaratory judgment collaterally estopping the other side from contesting control over the exploitation of Steinbeck's works.

Quite a few Hollywood projects may hang in the balance. We'll provide update when opposition to this summary judgment is filed.

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