Author Sues Universal Over Musical Theater Adaptation of 'October Sky'

October Sky Inset Rocket Boys H 2016
October: Photofest. Rocket: Delacorte Press.

The author of the New York Times best-seller Rocket Boys is suing Universal Pictures for overstepping the life rights he granted in the 1990s and shutting down a musical adaptation of his book in favor of launching its own, according to a complaint filed Thursday in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Homer Hickam Jr. says he agreed to give Universal the rights to one book to adapt into one film, October Sky.

Now he is suing Universal, and its president James Horowitz and vp of live theatricals Christopher Herzberger, for a host of claims including breach of contract, fraud, misappropriation and unfair competition. Hickam is seeking at least $20 million in damages, an injunction to shut down the October Sky musical and a declaration from the court that Universal does not have any rights to his life story other than the right to make the original 1999 film.

Rocket Boys is the story of Hickam's life, centering on the family conflict surrounding his decision to build rockets instead of entering the coal mining business.The author claims he sold that story to Universal in 1996, and his now-deceased literary agent Mickey Freiberg assured Hickam that his sequels were protected and reserved, that the agreement was for one film only and that Universal would have to provide significant payment if it wanted to remake the movie or create a new project.

A decade later, Hickam developed and produced Rocket Boys into a live stage musical with the approval of Universal, according to the lawsuit. In 2015, Universal decided to create an October Sky musical, purportedly based on the film and Hickam's memoir, and has shut down the author’s stage show. 

"Universal has demanded that Hickam cease and desist in developing, producing and performing the Rocket Boys musical and accept a complete gag order that would punish him if he ever said a word about Universal’s wrongful and improper conduct," states the complaint. “Universal has taken the completely fallacious position that Hickam has optioned all rights to Universal to make any and all motion pictures or live stage productions arising from any and all stories he may write about his life.”

According to the lawsuit, a 2007 amended agreement lays out that Hickam would have exclusive rights to live stage performances of the work for five years and Universal would receive 50 percent of his revenue from the musical. Hickam says he learned in 2013 that Universal had granted rights to an October Sky musical to Marriot International, but Herzberger assured him it would have no effect on the existing musical.

Hickam claims Herzberger attended his play in May 2015 and enjoyed it, and the following month Universal informed his attorney that the company would no longer approve additional performances of the Rocket Boys musical until October Sky finished its run.

He also says, to add insult to injury, the October Sky musical "utilized stereotypes of West Virginia coal miners, and ascribed crude, nasty language to Hickam and the other Rocket Boys."

Universal has not yet commented on the lawsuit.