Why Fox is licking its lips over Watchmen

A Christmas Eve ruling on the disputed rights to Alan Moore's graphic novel has left Warner forlorn and the film's release date up in the air

We all know Los Angeles is a hard-working, hard-playing kind of town, but Judge Gary Feess embarrassed everyone when he wrapped up the first hearing on the disputed rights to Watchmen, the adaptation of Alan Moore's canonical graphic novel, late on Christmas Eve. So late, in fact, that many executives remained unaware of what is a big deal for 24 hours, an ice age when you're living on BlackBerry time. Given the ruling, this was a small mercy for any Warner Bros execs, under whose logo the long-awaited film was ready to roll out on March 6. After four months of deliberation, Judge Feess decided that 20th Century Fox "owns a copyright interest consisting of, at the very least, the right to distribute the Watchmen motion picture".

The release date is now in serious jeopardy, causing marked tectonic spasms in the geekosphere. This is Feess's preliminary judgment, prior to a full trial, and now it's left to the two studios to thrash out an agreement, or take further legal action. If Warner Bros (and Paramount, who will be handling the film outside the US) appeals, the film could conceivably not emerge until 2011.

Warners will be kicking itself. It had managed to wrest back the initiative in the superhero game, finally reanimating its decomposing DC franchises – and in raucous style with July's The Dark Knight. Now it was poised for the mortal blow with Watchmen, the portentous, deconstructionist superhero epic that the neo-geek diaspora consults with as much reverence as the Good Book.

This, though, is a mess of its own making: ownership of the rights to Moore's classic was murky, and it seems incredible that neither the studio nor producer Larry Gordon (mysteriously not called to testify by Feess) clarified the situation before production went ahead. Fox claims that, having originally secured the rights to the graphic novel in the late 80s, it had a subsequent agreement with Gordon for compensation if he made the film with another studio: first refusal, effectively. The project has hovered in development for years at several studios, but Judge Feess seems to think Fox still deserves at least partial custody.

It seems as though Warner Brothers made an unfortunate hit on the one-tenth part of the old adage about possession and the law, and now it is paying the price for its gamesmanship. But it has rightfully been pointed out that maybe Fox, having been in a position to make the film itself for 20 years, is being rather opportunistic with its 11th-hour lawsuit. A likely outcome of the second round of negotiations is that the release date will stand, and Fox will take a cut of the gross. Director Zack Snyder hasn't demonstrated much, beyond visual preening, with his previous films, but he is competent enough, and Watchmen's rabid fan base should ensure that profits will be healthy.

Looking at Fox's release slate for 2009, you can see why a lawsuit might have been seen as a productive way to spend a few afternoons. Its tent-pole releases look wobbly (X-Men spinoff Wolverine; a Night at the Museum sequel; a third Ice Age film), and are supporting a draughty-looking canvas of feeble-looking offerings such as kids v aliens caper They Came from Upstairs. Marley & Me (life lessons from a misbehaving dog!) opened big over Christmas in the US, but its pop-culture impact when it opens here in the UK on 13 March should splutter out on, ooh, 14 March. There's nothing remotely mouthwatering until Wes Anderson's The Fantastic Mr Fox adaptation in October. After a promising start with Juno, Fox had a torrid 2008 – with only Horton Hears a Who! taking over $100m (£68.8m) – culminating in bum-rushing Baz Luhrmann to finish Australia (and look how that turned out).

With times turning tough for everyone, you can see why Fox might fancy a piece of Watchmen pie, and there's no need of course to be naive about the way Hollywood is run. But it's still depressing to watch a parasitic strategy unfold; whatever the law says about its hold over Watchmen, Fox doesn't deserve to emerge from the other side of the economic storm unless it sharpens up its own lame-looking release slate. As for Warner, what goes around, comes around: its subsidiary DC Comics has been pilloried over the years for its savage treatment of Alan Moore when it came to the rights for the original 12-issue series. The word is out that professed magus Moore has called on his esoteric allies and hexed the adaptation. Even he would probably have balked at summoning Rupert Murdoch, but consider this project officially, judicially, cursed.

Contributor

Phil Hoad

The GuardianTramp

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