A court ruling last week has ramifications for not just the Friday The 13th movies, but broader blockbuster cinema as well.
At the end of last week, a ruling was made by the Second Circuit Court Of Appeals in America, that flew under most people’s radars. However, eyeballs in Hollywood were keenly fixed on the ruling made by three judges in the case, as the impact might just be felt for some time to come.
The specific concerns the screen writes to the Friday The 13th movies, and this one has been bubbling for some time. It goes right the way back to the authorship of the first movie, all the way back to the 1980 original film. As per the official screen credits of the film, it was directed by Sean S Cunningham, with Victor Miller penning the screenplay (Ron Kurz worked on the script, but didn’t get credit). When it came out in cinemas, in spite of hardly enthusiastic reviews, it found its audience.
More than that, the film was a huge hit and, of course, a sizeable boxset of sequels followed. However, the franchise came to an end – for the time being – with a 2009 reboot, that wasn’t particularly well received. Nonetheless, their were plans for more films. Paramount Pictures certainly hoped for more anyway, trading off a chunk of Christopher Nolan’s 2014 hit Interstellar to get rights to make more films. Rumours of more films spring up quickly, and work got underway. The plan was for more releases, and fast.
And in theory, there should have been at least one more film by now – well, until legal problems hit. And it boils down to creatives exercising rights under American copyright law.
As this article over at Whynow outlines, Hollywood is currently facing several notice of termination notices from creators of original movie franchise properties. These notices – if they all went through – would see studios losing some of their most lucrative franchises, and the rights instead heading back to their creators. As such, virtually all of them are being fought.
Which is where a battle between Sean S Cunningham and Victor Miller comes into play. Cunningham was the producer of the first Friday The 13th too, and in the simplest version of the story, ordered a screenplay from Miller. Was Miller employed to do write it, or was it a freelance assignment? Glad you asked. That’s at heart of what’s been in court.
I’m jumping ahead. The particular bone of contention between the pair came when Miller served a termination notice seeking to get the rights to the film in 2016. He did so under the terms of the US Copyright Act, and the action was unsurprisingly contested . Still, in 2018, as this Hollywood Reporter piece details, Miller was successful. A US District Court judge ruled that Miller’s work wasn’t under ‘work for hire’ rules, even though Cunningham argued he was an employee, and not a contractor. He vowed to continue fighting, and duly did.
Thus, it all went to appeal, a process that’s taken three years to come to verdict. In the meantime, stories of termination notices surrounded the likes of RoboCop and The Terminator have bubbled up, more recently with Marvel properties such as Iron Man and Doctor Strange in the mix. Whilst it’d be wrong to call Friday The 13th a flat out test case, it’s nonetheless seen as an indicator of which way the wind is blowing. On the basis of this, away from the Hollywood sign.
For now, the court of appeal has upheld the original verdict, and Victor Miller has the rights to the original Friday The 13th script. This in turn has ramifications for any sequels and derivatives to be made from this point onwards.
It’s not quite that simple though. Whilst Miller has rights, they only apply in the US. International copyright law differs, and so on paper, what he has are the keys to make a new Friday The 13th film, but one that can only be released in the States. The same attorney, Marc Toberoff, is involved in the case against Disney for rights to Marvel characters.
Furthermore, any additions to the Friday The 13th franchise that came in later movies – specifically the character of the grown up Jason Voorhees (Voorhees isn’t a character as such in the original) are not covered by this ruling. Just to add a bit of flavour too, Paramount’s rights have gone back to New Line, which in turn is owned by Warner Bros.
What this means is a great big mudde. This was clearly a part of the process that needed to be worked through, but it hardly brings a new Friday The 13th film to the top of the queue. Instead, for it to go ahead, a deal has to be hatched between New Line and Miller, to unite – at least temporarily – their collected claims to the character and franchise. If that deal can’t be brokered, then the next movie is dead before it can begin.
Thanks to Brendan Connelly for his help in unpickling all of this.
It looks as if Sean Cunningham and the Manny company have run out of road in terms of their legal defence in the US at least. With the legal system effectively ruling in favour of the little guy now against the bigger company, that’s going to cause no shortage of headaches at certain movie studios.
Which is going to be next in court? The one to keep an eye on might be the Predator series, for which writers Jim and John Thomas served a termination notice in 2016. Disney – which now owns the former 20th Century Fox studio and its assets – is fighting this, just as it’s fighting the assorted challenges to its avengers. Again, Marc Toberoff is representing Jim and John Thomas, and he’s scored a sizeable win this month. Whether he can do it again?
Well, each case has different merits of course, and few expect Disney to put up anything other than a very expensive and very fervent defence. It’s comfortably one of the best-resourced studios in Hollywood, and it has much to lose should the assorted termination notices against it prove successful.
Against this backdrop, there is a new Predator film in post-production, from director Dan Trachtenberg. No word on a release date for that as of yet, but it’s a film that won’t be affected by what’s playing out at the moment. Future Predator films though, and future blockbuster franchise sequels? That, suddenly, is a little less clearcut.
For the minute, the assorted cases, therefore, continue. And somewhere out there, someone’s started the long journey of working out how to get another Friday The 13th movie together…
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