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November 21, 2008 3:32 PM

Geek Armageddon: "Watchmen" Case Reaches Its Climax

Posted by Zach Lowe

In our short life, the Am Law Daily has never read two motions for summary judgment as different as those filed by legal teams for Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox in their rights dispute over "Watchmen," the movie due in March based on the famous 1986 graphic novel about a disgraced band of superheroes. It's as if the two sides are talking about completely different movies.

The two sides filed their motions Tuesday, and the suit will come to a head during a hearing on Dec. 15 -- a hearing that could derail the unveiling of a movie that comic book geeks have waited two decades for.

In one corner, we have Warners, the studio producing the $100 million-plus movie. Originally represented by Glaser, Weil, Fink, Jacobs & Shapiro, the studio was confident in its claim that Fox gave up all rights to the film in a convoluted series of deals with an independent producer, Lawrence Gordon, in the early 1990s. They were confident, that is, until August, when a federal judge ruled that Fox may have a claim and refused to grant Warners' motion to dismiss the Fox suit.

It was a huge victory for the Fox team from Alston & Bird, which claims the studio still has distribution rights and that Warners was required to give Fox the right of first refusal before going ahead with the film.

Perhaps taken aback, Warners reached out to a big Hollywood gun: Irell & Manella's Steven Marenberg. Marenberg most recently guided "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson to a $40 million settlement with New Line Cinema over payouts from the blockbuster "Lord" trilogy (an Am Law Daily favorite). New Line at that point was a Warner subsidiary; apparently they liked what they saw across the table in Marenberg.

Marenberg, like all the lawyers the Am Law Daily has tried to interview about the "Watchmen" case, declined to comment.

The two sides take very different strategies in their motions filed this week. Warners comes out firing, saying Fox, even if it did once own a right of first refusal, gave it up by not exercising it for more than a decade while three different studios batted around possible "Watchmen" projects. They characterize Fox's suit as a last-minute attempt to attach itself to a film that looks like it will be a hit. But later in their motion, the studio says it's willing to accept a partial summary judgment ruling. What that means is unclear; it could mean that Fox will end up with a percentage of distribution rights or that Warners will pay Fox an unknown amount to secure full rights to the movie.

Fox, on the other hand, is going for a home run. They ask for nothing less than the sole right to produce "Watchmen" and distribute it in the U.S. and abroad.

The eyes of comic book geeks around the world will be on Judge Gary Feess's courtroom in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California next month.

(For a full history of the "Watchmen" film, see this long but thorough story in the Los Angeles Times).

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