WB asks for 'Watchmen' call sooner


Jan. 20 could be D-day in the "Watchmen" dispute. Or rather I-day, when Fox and Warner Bros. have agreed to let a judge decide whether to issue an injunction against the film's release.

But Warners is asking that the hearing be moved up to as early as Monday because "time is critical," the studio argues in papers filed this week. "Watchmen" is scheduled for a March 6 bow, and Warners must soon commit to tens of millions of dollars in marketing for a film it isn't sure it can release.

The injunction fight stems from Judge Gary Feess' Christmas Eve preliminary ruling that Fox has a right to distribute the Zack Snyder adaptation of the popular graphic novel. Feess found that producer Lawrence Gordon failed to acquire Fox's entire interest in "Watchmen," thereby leaving Fox with rights under a 1994 turnaround agreement.

The studios are now battling over the key issue of whether that decision allows Fox to stop the film's release or whether the parties should proceed to a trial over monetary damages.

The studios laid out their arguments in papers filed this week. Warners cites a precedent-setting decision involving eBay that says a plaintiff in a copyright-infringement case must, among other things, prove that it will be irreparably harmed without an injunction and that money damages will not be an adequate remedy.

In fact, Warners claims, the opposite is true in this case. While Fox had "abandoned" the "Watchmen" property, Warners claims it has spent more than $150 million to make and market the film in a "carefully choreographed" plan to pique moviegoer interest March 6. Barring the release would do grave damage to Warners and third parties like exhibitors who are counting on the movie, the studio argues.

Fox claims that the eBay case does not apply in this instance and that Warners' infringement of its rights entitles it to stop the release.

A status conference is scheduled for Friday morning in Feess' Los Angeles courtroom to determine when the hearing will take place. Warners is seeking to bring live witnesses to the proceeding, while Fox instead wants Feess to stop the release based on arguments submitted to the judge in writing. The hearing is expected to last two to three days and could feature testimony from top studio execs like Warners domestic distribution head Dan Fellman.

If the injunction is granted, Warners would be barred from releasing the film, though it likely would appeal immediately. Feess has encouraged the parties to settle the dispute.

Fox initially filed suit in February. (partialdiff)