'Stranger Things' Trial Split Into Two Phases

A jury is set to determine in May whether Matt and Ross Duffer breached an implied deal with a man who pitched them an idea for a sci-fi project in 2014.
Courtesy of Netflix

The trial set to address whether Matt and Ross Duffer took the idea for Stranger Things from a man they met at a 2014 Tribeca Film Festival party will be split into two phases, which means court watchers may not get insight into the profits of the mega-popular Netflix series.

Charlie Kessler in April 2018 sued the Duffers for breach of implied contract, claiming he pitched them his concept for a sci-fi story set near an abandoned military base. He says Stranger Things is based on his short film Montauk and a feature script titled The Montauk Project — both of which are centered on a city that is home to "various urban legends, and paranormal and conspiracy theories." The Duffers contend that they independently created their show and began discussing the project as far back as 2010.

L.A. Superior Court Judge Michael Stern on Tuesday granted the Duffers' request to bifurcate the trial. First, a jury will hear arguments to determine whether the brothers actually did take Kessler's idea and are liable for the breach. If the jury determines there is liability, a second trial will address damages. Kessler wants a third of the money the Duffers have earned from Stranger Things.

Kessler's attorney Paul Katrinak tried to sway Stern against the split, but it didn't work.

"The intensity of preparation and presentation is far greater on the damages side than the liability side," said Stern, noting that this situation is similar to others he's handled in "movieland." 

”I’m very hesitant to bifurcate a case," said Stern. "This case cries out for that type of trial, or trials." 

Kessler on Monday notified the court that his long-gestating film Lapham Rising begins filming on May 13, and shooting can’t be moved because of the director’s availability. So if the trial is continued, Kessler won’t be available until filming wraps on June 10.

After going over logistics involving audiovisual set-ups and opening argument length, Stern indicated he'd be pushing back the trial date.

With jurors on another matter waiting in the hall, Stern postponed discussion of the Duffers’ motions in limine, which seek to preclude testimony about their alleged copying of other works, their insurance coverage and their compensation and net worth. After the hearing he granted the motions to exclude information about their insurance coverage and net worth, as they were unopposed.

The first phase of trial is now set to begin May 7, one day later than the previous date.