Real-Life 'Terminator': Major Studios Face Sweeping Loss of Iconic '80s Film Franchise Rights

Warner Bros., Disney and Skydance receive copyright termination notices over existing IP, potentially giving other studios an in.
Works subject to copyright termination notices include, from left, 'Beetlejuice,' the 'Terminator' franchise and 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit.'

Since its 1984 bow, The Terminator has spawned five sequels grossing $1.8 billion globally. The latest, Terminator: Dark Fate (Nov. 1), again will have the future messing with the past. And that plot extends into real life as Gale Anne Hurd, the original's writer, has moved to terminate a copyright grant made 35 years ago, The Hollywood Reporter has learned. 

As a result, per records filed at the U.S. Copyright Office, David Ellison's Skydance Media — which acquired the rights from his sister, Megan Ellison, who bought them for $20 million in 2011 at an auction — could lose rights to make Terminator movies starting in November 2020.

Terminator isn't an anomaly, it's a preview of what's to come. In the late 1970s, Congress amended the law to allow authors to grab back rights from studios after waiting a few decades. Until now, the termination provision has largely been exploited by musicians, not screenwriters. But records show a flurry of termination notices in the past year — under law, they can come 35 years after publication — which threatens to unsettle who owns the ability to make sequels and reboots of iconic films from the mid- to late-'80s.

More works that could change hands: Gary K. Wolf is looking to terminate Disney's rights to the book that became Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The heirs of Beetlejuice screenwriter Michael McDowell aim to do the same for the script to the 1988 Warner Bros. film. The family of novelist Roderick Thorp is terminating Fox's grip on Nothing Lasts Forever, aka Die Hard. Other works subject to termination include Predator and Nightmare on Elm Street, with authors like Stephen King and David Mamet also on the warpath.

Why now is probably best explained by the statutory clock (termination notices must be sent at precise time during the copyright term), though a judge’s decision last year confirming the validity of a termination notice sent by Friday the 13th screenwriter Victor Miller certainly raised awareness among authors. (The producer of that film is appealing on grounds that Miller’s script was penned as a work-for-hire with no termination rights.)

Will terminations lead to mayhem in an industry that prizes preexisting intellectual property? Will this activity encourage or interfere with sequels and reboots?

Studios might be hesitant to greenlight anything under a legal cloud. Original producers may go to court to contest terminations and use everything from trademarks to their continued hold over foreign rights (where U.S. termination law doesn't apply) to interfere with plans for new versions outside their authority.

But authors, after reclaiming rights, surely will want to capitalize. After all, it was Congress' express intention to let them have another bite at the apple during the later part of the copyright term that led to the passage of the termination law. In the face of this, studios may look to a last opportunity for exploitation, as Paramount did in April when it released a reboot of Pet Sematary in the face of a notice from King. 

“Since the author has to give at least two years notice of the termination, that gives the studios two years notice that it’s ‘use it or lose it,’” says entertainment attorney Larry Zerner. “Even if Paramount was on the fence about a remake, once the termination went into effect, it would be out of their hands or they would have to pay a much larger fee.”

Intellectual property attorney Marc Toberoff represents Miller and a growing number of other writers. He keeps careful records about what’s coming up for termination and is winning clients — and becoming a nuisance for studios — based on promises of recapture. Toberoff says that in most instances, the prospect of termination will lead the original studio to sit down for talks. “Let’s make a deal,” he says.

That seems to be the case for Terminator. A source explains that Hurd will have a 50-50 ownership split with James Cameron, the original director who is returning to produce Skydance's Dark Fate. If Skydance wants another film, it'll have to renegotiate backend with the two. Otherwise, another studio will have the opportunity to move forward with the franchise.

After the publication of this story, Skydance Media responded in a statement: "Skydance has a deal in place with Jim Cameron and controls the rights to the Terminator franchise for the foreseeable future." Hurd had no comment.

Oct. 2, 7:51 pm PST Updated with a statement from Skydance. 

Borys Kit contributed to this report.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.