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Studio War

The watershed graphic novel 'Watchmen' has been called 'unfilmable,' but Hollywood execs have been trying for decades. Now that it's shot, they're engaged in a . . .

November 16, 2008|John Horn | Horn is a Times staff writer.

The iconic image from "Watchmen," Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' ground-breaking graphic novel, is a yellow button sporting the familiar happy-face design. Next to the cheerful smile, though, you'll find a foreboding splatter of blood.

That good-news-bad-news contradiction also fits the high-stakes legal tussle surrounding the movie version of the novel -- a film that holds great creative and financial promise but is now being overshadowed by a bitter copyright- infringement lawsuit that threatens "Watchmen's" distribution.

Directed by Zack Snyder and starring Billy Crudup, Patrick Wilson and Jackie Earle Haley, "Watchmen" is one of the spring's most anticipated releases, and fan interest exploded after Snyder showed his film's trailer at July's Comic-Con in San Diego. The sprawling Cold War-era drama about a band of masked crime fighters is scheduled to arrive in theaters March 6, almost two years to the day after Snyder's global blockbuster "300" premiered.

It's taken more than 20 years and any number of false starts to bring "Watchmen" this far along: Forsaken film adaptations include versions from directors Terry Gilliam ("Brazil"), Paul Greengrass ("The Bourne Ultimatum") and screenwriter David Hayter ("X-Men"), with countless script revisions along the way. Joaquin Phoenix was once considered for Crudup's starring part as Dr. Manhattan, the all-powerful but tortured soul at the center of the "Watchmen" story. Early screenplay costs and abandoned preproduction fees total close to $10 million, and no fewer than four studios have worked on the movie over the decades, including 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount and Universal.

The film's long path to the screen factors prominently in the litigation and is at the center of another, far less public, "Watchmen" dispute between Paramount and Warners.

In the main case, 20th Century Fox believes that no matter how many hands "Watchmen" has passed through, Fox controls the right to make or, at the very least, distribute "Watchmen," even though Warners is currently producing and distributing the film.

As Fox sees it, Warners infringed on Fox's rights, and "Watchmen" producer Lawrence Gordon gave Warners rights he didn't possess. Warners says Fox's claim is baseless and, as one of its court filing says, "opportunistic" -- a last-minute, backdoor attempt to cash in on another studio's potential hit.

In Warners' view, Fox repeatedly declined to exercise any purported rights to become involved in the film during its various incarnations over the years, and in an e-mail even bad-mouthed the script that Warners greenlighted. The "Watchmen" case dramatizes the complex deal making that surrounds many high-profile projects and underscores how movie studios have grown addicted to comic-book franchises. In an era where "The Dark Knight" can generate $1 billion in global theatrical revenue, the well-executed superhero story has turned into Hollywood's Holy Grail. It's not just the box-office returns that are so meaningful to these kind of properties. A hit film can also sell truckloads of DVDs, help launch a theme-park ride, or generate millions in television sales. Fox, which has suffered through a demoralizing string of box-office flops this year, could desperately use such a movie. It felt its case against Warners was so strong it had no choice but to take the matter to court.

"They are not just fighting over 'Watchmen,' " entertainment attorney Mel Avanzado, who is not involved in the litigation, said of the duel between Fox and Warners. "They are also fighting over sequel rights. Whoever controls the franchise probably controls quite a bit."

As part of its legal strategy against Warners, Fox is trying to block "Watchmen's" theatrical release, claiming that it would cause the studio irreparable harm. The case has been scheduled for trial in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles in early January, but Fox and Warners are set to enter a non-binding mediation toward the end of November.

So far, though, the parties have not participated in any settlement talks, evidence that the legal skirmish -- just like the mysterious murders of key characters in "Watchmen" -- could grow more brutal before it gets better.

Living up to its 'unfilmable' tag

When DC Comics began publishing Moore (the writer) and Gibbons' (the illustrator) 12-part series in 1986, "Watchmen" took the comic book from the domain of pop entertainment into the realm of literary fiction. The comics were combined into a graphic novel that won the prestigious science-fiction Hugo Award and was listed by Time magazine among the top 100 modern English-language novels.

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