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.


Phil Hoad

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
You review: Watchmen

Ben Child: Did you catch Zack Snyder's big-screen transfer of Alan Moore's epoch-making graphic novel? Was it a super spectacle or an almighty mess? And more importantly, did you know what you were letting yourself in for?

Ben Child

09, Mar, 2009 @5:26 PM

Film review: Watchmen

Dark wit and vivid characters abound in Watchmen but the film falls far short of the brilliance of Alan Moore's graphic novel, thinks Philip French

Philip French

08, Mar, 2009 @12:01 AM

Film trailer: Watchmen

Zack Snyder's hotly-anticipated adaptation of the seminal Alan Moore graphic novel about superheroes in an alternative postwar universe

20, Jan, 2009 @2:26 PM

Watching out for Watchmen

Actors are being sought for Watchmen, the film version of Alan Moore's multi-faceted comic book. I know how I'd cast it - how about you?

Sean Dodson

19, Jul, 2007 @2:55 PM

Article image
Warner Bros and Fox settle Watchmen dispute
Zack Snyder's hotly-anticipated adaptation of the Alan Moore graphic novel set for release on March 6

Ben Child

16, Jan, 2009 @3:04 PM

Jimmy's End by Alan Moore: exclusive look at the first full trailer

Ben Child: Comic-book creator Alan Moore's first short film, an 'occult, noir-flecked' collaboration with photographer Mitch Jenkins, will be unveiled next month. Here's a first taste

Ben Child

15, Nov, 2012 @4:22 PM

Article image
Paul MacInnes: Watchmen's women lose their powers

Paul MacInnes: Alan Moore's female characters are detailed, thoughtful and rounded. So why are they reduced to victims and objects in the film?

Paul MacInnes

06, Mar, 2009 @12:45 PM

Watchmen - the hype machine begins

Ben Child: Warner Bros has kickstarted its viral hype machine for what's being billed as the ultimate superhero movie

Ben Child

11, Feb, 2009 @10:58 AM

Paramount takes its eye off Watchmen

After weeks of speculation, Paramount has officially confirmed that it has pulled the plug on its film adaptation of Watchmen, Alan Moore's celebrated graphic novel.

Staff and agencies

07, Jun, 2005 @11:30 AM

Watchmen watch: March release date still stands

The preliminary injunction sought by Fox over Warner Bros concerning film rights to Alan Moore's graphic novel has been refused by a US judge

Ben Child

03, Sep, 2008 @9:00 AM