Power Lawyers: How a Warner Bros. Attorney Fought to Save 'Man of Steel'

This story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When John Rogovin was appointed general counsel of Warner Bros. in January 2009, the studio was facing a legal mess the size of Krypton. Nine months earlier, a federal judge had declared that the widow and daughter of Superman co-creator Jerome Siegel rightfully had terminated a 1938 copyright grant that covered the Man of Steel and other elements of the property.

With Batman successfully having been rebooted in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films, Warners and its DC Comics division badly wanted to reinvent Superman but faced the prospect of losing the ability to make new movies and TV shows after 2013. “My job was to dig into Superman and come up with a new strategy,” says Rogovin, 51, over lunch at his regular outdoor table at the Warners commissary.

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So he decided to get aggressive. A former FCC lawyer and prosecutor in Bill Clinton’s Justice Department — he defended the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell compromise on gays in the military and Hillary Clinton’s health-care reform proposals — Rogovin replaced the Superman legal team and bet on litigator Daniel Petrocelli to engineer a counterattack. That included new claims and a separate suit against Marc Toberoff, the attorney representing the heirs of both Superman co-creators Siegel and Joe Shuster, for alleged interference with contracts. at the time, many called the strategy a long-shot move by a desperate studio.

But Rogovin’s tactics paid off in a series of court wins during the past year. In particular, a January court of appeals ruling found that a 2001 contract with the Siegels is enforceable, allowing the studio to exploit Superman (while paying the Siegels and Shusters a slice of profits) for the foreseeable future, barring appeals. The suit against Toberoff was dismissed.

Superman is just one of several hairy situations navigated by the University of Virginia School of Law grad, who relocated from Washington, D.C., to Bel-Air with wife Jaye and their two girls, 10 and 12. During his first week on the job, Rogovin had to contend with a judge’s surprise ruling that Fox owned rights to Watchmen, imperiling a movie Warners was about to release. (He crafted a settlement.) Rogovin played a key role in untangling rights issues that imperiled The Hobbit movies. And in 2011, he and Warners execs Sue Kroll and Dan Fellman found themselves in a St. Louis courtroom during a tornado watch as a federal judge evaluated whether the tattoo on Ed Helms’ face in The Hangover Part II was too similar to the copyrighted mark worn by Mike Tyson. (That settled after an all-day mediation.) “Any time one of our pictures is challenged before its release, it’s very stressful,” he says.

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Rogovin, who was recognized as THR’s Raising the Bar honoree at the annual Power Lawyers breakfast May 22 at Spago, recently attended a screening of Man of Steel. He enjoyed it for reasons beyond the typical viewer. “It’s spectacular,” he says. “The rights are going to be well taken care of here.”