Watchmen producer explains why Fox doesn't deserve a cut

via Techdirt by Michael Masnick on 1/12/09

There's been plenty of discussion over the fact that Fox is going to end up making money from the movie Watchmen, despite having absolutely nothing to do with the film itself. ChurchHatesTucker alerts us to an open letter, over at HitFix, from one of the producers of the movie, pointing out how ridiculous this is from a common sense approach. Basically, Fox pretty much did everything possible to not let the movie ever go into production, and then Warner took incredible risks, spending a ton of money on a script that Fox (and others) hated, giving it to a director without a commercial hit at the time, and casting no brand name stars. The point that Lloyd Levin is making is that, no matter what the law says, from a basic common sense standpoint, it's ridiculous that Fox should get any money at all. You should read the whole thing, but here's an excerpt:
Larry and I developed screenplays at five different studios. We had two false starts in production on the movie. We were involved with prominent and commercial directors. Big name stars were interested. In one instance hundreds of people were employed, sets were being built - An A-list director and top artists in the industry were given their walking papers when the studio financing the movie lost faith.

After all these years of rejection, this is the same project, the same movie, over which two studios are now spending millions of dollars contesting ownership. Irony indeed, and then some.

Through the years, inverse of the lack of studio faith has been the passionate belief by many many individuals - movie professionals who were also passionate fans of the graphic novel - who, yes, wanted to work on the film, but more for reasons of just wanting to see the movie get made, to see this movie get made and made right, donated their time and talent to help push the film forward: Writers gave us free screenplay drafts; conceptual art was supplied by illustrators, tests were performed gratis by highly respected actors and helped along and put together by editors, designers, prop makers and vfx artists; we were the recipients of donated studio and work space, lighting and camera equipment. Another irony, given the commercial stakes implied by the pitched legal dispute between Fox and Warners, is that for years Watchmen has been a project that has survived on the fumes of whatever could be begged, borrowed and stolen - A charity case for all intents and purposes. None of that effort, none of that passion and emotional involvement, is considered in the framework of this legal dispute.

From my point of view, the flashpoint of this dispute, came in late spring of 2005. Both Fox and Warner Brothers were offered the chance to make Watchmen. They were submitted the same package, at the same time. It included a cover letter describing the project and its history, budget information, a screenplay, the graphic novel, and it made mention that a top director was involved.

And it's at this point, where the response from both parties could not have been more radically different.

The response we got from Fox was a flat "pass." That's it. An internal Fox email documents that executives there felt the script was one of the most unintelligible pieces of shit they had read in years. Conversely, Warner Brothers called us after having read the script and said they were interested in the movie - yes, they were unsure of the screenplay, and had many questions, but wanted to set a meeting to discuss the project, which they promptly did. Did anyone at Fox ask to meet on the movie? No. Did anyone at Fox express any interest in the movie? No. Express even the slightest interest in the movie? Or the graphic novel? No.

From there, the executives at Warner Brothers, who weren't yet completely comfortable with the movie, made a deal to acquire the movie rights and we all started to creatively explore the possibility of making Watchmen. We discussed creative approaches and started offering the movie to directors, our former director having moved on by then. After a few director submissions, Zack Snyder came onboard, well before the release of his movie 300. In fact, well before its completion. This was a gut, creative call by Larry, me and the studio... Zack didn't have a huge commercial track record, yet we all felt he was the right guy for the movie.

Warner Brothers continued to support, both financially and creatively, the development of the movie. And eventually, after over a year of work, they agreed to make the film, based on a script that, for what it's worth, was by and large very similar to the one Fox initially read and deemed an unintelligible piece of shit.

Now here's the part that has to be fully appreciated, if for nothing more than providing insight into producing movies in Hollywood: The Watchmen script was way above the norm in length, near 150 pages, meaning the film could clock in at close to 3 hours, the movie would not only be R rated but a hard R - for graphic violence and explicit sex - would feature no stars, and had a budget north of $100M. We also asked Warner Brothers to support an additional 1 to 1.5 hours of content incurring additional cost that would tie in with the movie but only be featured in DVD iterations of the film. Warners supported the whole package and I cannot begin to emphasize how ballsy and unprecedented a move this was on the part of a major Hollywood studio. Unheard of. And would another studio in Hollywood, let alone a studio that didn't show one shred of interest in the movie, not one, have taken such a risk? Would they ever have made such a commitment, a commitment to a film that defied all conventional wisdom?

Only the executives at Fox can answer that question. But if they were to be honest, their answer would have to be "No."

Shouldn't Warner Brothers be entitled to the spoils - if any -- of the risk they took in supporting and making Watchmen? Should Fox have any claim on something they could have had but chose to neither support nor show any interest in?

Look at it another way... One reason the movie was made was because Warner Brothers spent the time, effort and money to engage with and develop the project. If Watchmen was at Fox the decision to make the movie would never have been made because there was no interest in moving forward with the project.

All in all, what Levin is saying is effectively the same point we've made about the innovation market over the years: the "idea" is a very tiny part. It's all about the execution. Fox wanted nothing to do with the execution and wasn't even that interested in the idea. Warner put up all the risk, and now Fox gets rewarded because at one point it bought the rights to just the idea. Once again, we're seeing society overvalue the idea and vastly undervalue the execution.

Of course, it's no surprise to see Fox's response is the same as plenty of patent holders in the same situation (paraphrased, obviously): "Tough noogies. The law is the law, and we win, so suck it." Wouldn't it be nice if, just once, we got to see common sense match up with what the law allows?

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by Ben Pike