Warner Bros. Escapes Lawsuit Over 'Bourne Identity'

But a claim against Robert Ludlum's literary agent for helping broker the deal that led to the 2002 Matt Damon film survives.
"The Bourne Identity."

After giving up the right to produce The Bourne Identity nearly 15 years ago, Warner Bros. won't face any additional punishment for this misjudgment. Last week, a New York judge refused to allow the studio to be entered as a defendant in a lawsuit three decades in the making.

The lawsuit comes from the widow of Anthony Lazzarino, who in the early 1980s operated a company called Windwood/Glen Productions that actually held film rights to the Robert Ludlum novel. The adaptation rights were then sold to Warners' predecessor, Orion Pictures, in exchange for a 3.75 percent interest of revenues and a presentation credit.

At the time, a movie starring Burt Reynolds as the title character was being planned. But that never happened, and in 1999, Warners allowed the rights to revert back to Ludlum, who then negotiated a deal with Universal Pictures. In 2002, the Matt Damon starrer came out and grossed more than $214 million worldwide. Three sequels were made.

Lazzarino sued and alleged that he was due a percentage of profits and credit. Eight years after filing the claim, and after Lazzarino died last June at the age of 88, the lawsuit is still going on. But it survives in a more modest form after a judge agreed with Warners that it should not be part of the litigation.

When Lazzarino held rights, he did so with Ludlum's literary agent, Henry Morrison. Together, they ran Windwood/Glen Productions until the two men had a falling out and reached a settlement with each other that gave Lazzarino sole control over Winwood.

Around the turn of the century, when Warners allowed the rights to revert back to Ludlum and then those rights were sold to Universal, it was Morrison who helped broker the deal, even though he was allegedly under some obligation per the settlement not to "interfere or diminish" Winwood's rights over Bourne Identity.

In 2005, Lazzarino sued the film companies as well as Morrison. He claimed that Orion had given Windwood/Glen a "right to match" any sale of film rights and that after Universal had come out with its film, he was contractually due a 3.75 percent interest and a presentation credit on any film "produced or caused to be produced by Orion."

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In 2008, after the original judge in the case dismissed claims against the studios but allowed a breach of contract claim against Morrison to survive, nothing happened in the case for five years. Then, suddenly, Lazzarino's widow looked to revive the lawsuit and add Warner Bros. back into it.

New York Supreme Court judge Marcy Friedman won't allow the case to go quite so far.

In her ruling last week, she concludes that the claim falls outside of the statute of limitations, pointing out that the "claim is barred as against the Warner Bros. defendants because they executed the last agreement with Ludlum, without preserving the right to match, on May 4, 1999, more than six years before the commencement of this action."

The judge lifts the stay as it pertains to Morrison, but because the Orion agreement only contemplated an Orion-produced film, she says, with separate remedies in the event that such a film was not made with Burt Reynolds' involvement, Lazzarino's widow can't claim a 3.75 percent interest or presentation credit from Universal's blockbuster film.

Instead,  the only claim left on the table is Lazzarino's allegation that Morrison breached the settlement agreement by interfering and diminishing Winwood's "right to match" when Orion gave up its interest in film rights. Thus, litigation over a contract made 30 years ago and the move to put Bourne Identity in Universal's hands 15 years ago continues in a more modest shape.

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