Producers Fight Over Movie Rights to Prize-Winning Novel 'The White Tiger' (Exclusive)

The White Tiger Book Cover - P 2012

The White Tiger Book Cover - P 2012

A scuffle has broken out over the film adaptation of The White Tiger, the 2008 Man Booker Prize-winning novel by Aravind Adiga about a racist, homicidal chauffeur in India involved in a class struggle. Among the producers on the film is John Hart (Revolutionary Road, Boys Don't Cry). The script is penned by Oscar-nominated writer Todd Field (In the Bedroom, Little Children). But now the American production companies making the movie are locked in a battle with the film's India-based financier that puts the movie in question.

Watchtower Media Ventures, a Mumbai-based producer that put up $1 million to develop the film with the option of investing a further $3.6 million, filed an arbitration claim in May against Rooster Coop, the entity set up to make the film, as well as the production companies, Smuggler Films and Ohio Films.

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Watchtower claimed that the defendants had breached the financing agreement by using the $1 million "as an interest-free loan ... as they saw fit and without regard for Watchtower's rights, with the ultimate stratagem of forcing Watchtower out of the project."

The financier claims that Field failed to deliver a fully developed screenplay, that Hart didn't supervise development activities and that the defendants didn't properly consult with Watchtower as per their agreement.

The arbitration further stated that Field was paid $538,000 to prepare the screenplay. Watchtower says it saw Field's first draft in late June 2011, but it wasn't satisfied with what it saw.

Watchtower says that the defendants went behind its back to curry favor with Field by telling him that it wouldn't necessarily have to work with Watchtower or Hart and authorized him to engage in line-producing activities in India and choose a crew to work with in Mumbai.

The financier and the producers talked about changes to the script, but the producers are said to have advised that Field wouldn't do any more work unless Watchtower agreed to "greenlight" the film on an accelerated timetable. Watchtower says to do so would mean that it would have to "forgo all of its rights of approval" and that a foreign sales agent couldn't presell the rights to the picture, which allegedly then would cause "the full equity financing component of the production budget to balloon to nearly $8 million, more than double the amount of Production Funds provided under the Agreement."

Watchtower says that Smuggler decided to favor Field because he was an important writer-director for its television commercial production business. (Field was behind some popular Captain Morgan commercials.)

Smuggler's lawyer is purported to have told Watchtower by letter in October that by failing to approve the first draft, Watchtower waived its right to finance the picture. Third parties in India were allegedly told that Watchtower was no longer involved in the film.

But Watchtower's agreement with the producers included a "security agreement" that gave it a property lien on the rights to the film. Watchtower believes that its security interest in the film is only released upon the completion of the contractual obligations.

So alleging breach of contract, good faith and fair dealing, Watchtower now is looking to foreclose upon the film adaptation rights to a book that The New York Times hailed as a "penetrating piece of social commentary."

On Monday, Smuggler Films and Ohio Films hit back with a lawsuit in New York state court that alleged that Rooster made the agreement with Watchtower, not Smuggler and Ohio, and thus, the two companies couldn't be dragged into arbitration.

But the film companies refuted the allegations anyway. According to their version of the contract, Watchtower was only guaranteed the delivery of a screenplay written by a pre-approved writer. Rooster delivered the screenplay, and Field was pre-approved, meaning that Watchtower allegedly had to accept it.

"Watchtower has instead insisted that a screenplay has not been 'delivered,' " says the New York lawsuit. "Watchtower is allegedly unsatisfied with the screenplay and claims that the screenplay is simply a first draft, although Watchtower's pre-approved writer believes otherwise. The Agreement did not grant Watchtower the right to participate in the preparation of the screenplay. Watchtower has delayed the production of the Picture with its dilatory conduct in breach of the Agreement."

According to Smuggler, Rooster remains the owner of the literary rights to White Tiger and that arbitration counterclaims against Watchtower will be brought. In the meantime, Smuggler and Ohio are looking to stay the arbitration against them.

Rooster Coop apparently is a reference to the novel's protagonist's way of describing the underclass' socioeconomic trap.


Twitter: @eriqgardner