Puzo Estate Asks Judge to Take Away Paramount's Rights to More 'Godfather' Films

The Godfather Novel Cover Art 2011

A deal between Paramount Pictures and the estate of author Mario Puzo in May to allow a new Godfather book to come out hasn’t thawed their icy relationship.

On Thursday, the two sides were back in court as Paramount looks to stave off a loss of one of movie history’s most iconic franchises.

The Puzo estate is going forward with counterclaims attempting to take back rights granted to Paramount. If successful, the estate will be able to deny Paramount the ability to make anymore Godfather films.

In 1969, Puzo sold rights to adaptations of his famous Godfather work for $50,000, which the estate estimates has a reasonable value of $100 million and has generated revenues over the years over $1 billion.

Now, it’s all under threat, thanks to a dispute that erupted after the Puzo estate licensed a new book entitled The Family Corleone about Vito Corleone's rise to power in Depression-era New York.

Paramount sued last February, claiming that the 1969 deal gave it veto power, and that the new book would “tarnish” the legacy of The Godfather.

The Puzo estate filed a countersuit the following month, alleging that an earlier 1967 rights agreement between the two sides expressly excluded and reserved "book publishing rights" for Puzo, who died in 1999. Claiming breach of contract and tortious interference, the estate looked to terminate its 1969 deal and be awarded some $10 million in damages.

In May, the two sides struck a deal whereby the new book would come out, with money being held in escrow pending the resolution of this case. But the two sides continued to fight, even bickering over the terms of that interim settlement.

For instance, the Puzo estate says publishers would only put the book out if money was put up in advance, fearing Paramount’s legal threats. Paramount believes that the interim settlement took care of any claim the studio induced a contractual breach by the publishers. But the Puzo estate says the interim settlement expressly provided that neither party would “waive or affect any of the rights, remedies or claims.”

STORY: New 'Godfather' Book Will Be Published After Paramount, Mario Puzo Estate Strike Deal

At a hearing late last week, the Puzo estate told a judge how Paramount had poisoned its book deal and why it should be allowed to cancel its rights deals with Paramount.

Paramount argues that the 1969 contract can’t be canceled because under the law, it can only be “repudiated” if a party has manifested an intent to fully breach a contract. The studio says that’s not what has been alleged and that after decades of building Godfather into one of the most lucrative literary properties around, there’s no way to restore the sides to the state before the 1969 deal was signed.

The Puzo estate in turn believes that Paramount is conflating “cancellation” and “repudiation.” The counterclaimants say the first is the appropriate remedy, which would end Paramount’s prospective rights. "The estate seeks cancellation of Paramount’s future rights to make more Godfather movies," it says in legal documents. "Paramount’s rights in the three Godfather films already produced would be unimpaired."

Nevertheless, if the court sees cancellation and repudiation as two sides of the same coin, the estate says that even repudiation would be proper under the circumstance. If so, the estate says that Paramount could be returned the $50,000 that Puzo originally got, Paramount could hold onto rights to its three films, but the estate would be allowed the benefit of making use of any rights before the 1969 deal was signed. In short, the estate would reclaim rights estimated to be worth $100 million and the door would be open for another studio to be given license to make a new Godfather film.

A judge’s decision could come soon.

E-mail: eriq.gardner@thr.com; Twitter: @eriqgardner