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A downright explosive fight has broken out between the creator of the “MacGyver” television series and the producers of “MacGruber,” the Will Forte parody film set to hit theaters in April.
Lee Zlotoff, who created the 1985-92 ABC series about a resourceful secret agent who uses science to escape precarious situations, retained the right to make a movie based on the show via his “separated rights” under WGA rules. THR reported last March that New Line is developing a “MacGyver” movie, with Zlotoff, Raffaella De Laurentiis and Martha De Laurentiis producing. Months later, THR reported that Relativity Media was moving forward with “MacGruber,” a comedy based on the popular “Saturday Night Live” segments featuring cast members Forte and Kristen Wiig. Universal will distribute the Jorma Taccone-directed film.
The “MacGruber” movie didn’t sit well with Zlotoff, whose attorney began sending cease-and-desist letters to Relativity execs.
“We feel they’re infringing our rights,” Zlotoff lawyer Paul Mayersohn told us Tuesday. As the film’s April 23 release date approaches, Mayersohn says he’s meeting with litigators to determine a course of action, which might include filing a copyright and/or trademark lawsuit and attempting to get an injunction against the film’s release.
Relativity and Universal declined to comment on the dispute, which first surfaced on the Latino Review Web site. A New Line spokesperson also declined to comment.
Before greenlighting projects, studios typically vet scripts with copyright lawyers, obtain insurance and clear the title with the MPAA. That’s especially true when making film parodies such as “Airplane,” “Austin Powers” or the “Scary Movie” franchise.
This case presents a potentially interesting twist on typical parody situations because the “MacGyver” and “MacGruber” films are being developed simultaneously and the parody will hit theaters before the original (and presumably could impact the market for the original). Mayersohn said an unfair competition claim could be part of a Zlotoff lawsuit, but a few of our litigator sources said he still faces an uphill battle on free speech grounds.
“There’s a broad right to parody, and in this instance it’s clearly parody,” said Alonzo Wickers, a First Amendment attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine in Los Angeles. “I don’t think a viewer will believe the ‘MacGyver’ folks authorized this.”
As to whether “MacGruber” infringes any “MacGyver” copyrights, Martin Katz, an entertainment litigator with Sheppard Mullin, told us Zlotoff’s case could hinge on whether the “MacGruber” parody makes a “fair use” of the “MacGyver” rights — a loose test that courts employ to balance free speech against the rights of intellectual property owners.
“If he’s got separated rights and the right to make a motion picture is his, the out for that would be if the work falls within fair use,” Katz said.
One of the fair-use prongs is whether the potentially infringing work hurts the market for the original. James Bond and Austin Powers manage to co-exist successfully. Can MacGyver and MacGruber? The clock is ticking …
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