Watchmen: Gordon and Levin Speak Out

2009 Film based on graphic novel, set in an alternate 1985 universe of nuclear war

JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN as Comedian in Warner Bros. Pictures
JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN as Comedian in Warner Bros. Pictures
The legal battle surrounding the film version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen is nothing new, but this week, some major fuel was thrown on the fire by producers Larry Gordon and Lloyd Levin. Both have written letters about the ongoing battle between Warner Bros. and Fox over the film’s release.

First off, according to The Hollywood Reporter, Gordon wrote a letter to U.S. District Court Judge Gary Feess, which places the blame in regards to the rights to the film squarely at the feet of Fox, and the lawyers who were associated with Fox during Gordon’s tenure at the studio. Gordon acquired the rights to Watchmen while he was an executive at Fox, and, as Fox has argued (and Fess agreed in his December 24th ruling), Gordon did not fully secure rights to the project from Fox before he left the studio and shopped the property to Warner Bros., where it eventually landed with Zack Snyder directing.

Though Gordon is not a party to the case between Fox and Warner Bros., he and Feess have been sparring after a fashion, with Feess noting that Gordon had “refused to testify” to specific key questions about the property during his deposition. In his letter, Gordon said that he has been the subject of "significant public scorn" for his role in the battle between the studios, and did answer the questions “to the best of his knowledge.” Feess refused to read Gordon’s letter in Court, calling it “improper communication” that was in violation of Court rules.

The letter explains Gordon’s side of the issue, stating that “he does not recall any conversations he had with representatives of Fox in or about 1994 relating to 'Watchmen.'” As reported previously, Watchmen was put into turnaround in 1994, allowing Gordon to shop the project to other studios. The crux of Fox’s argument is a 1991 quitclaim that gives Fox certain distribution rights, as well as a share of the profits if Gordon made the film at a different studio. Fox’s claim was maintained, Feess ruled, because Gordon did not reimburse Fox for its development costs.

Gordon’s letter claims that when his lawyer received a chain of title (who has held or has claims on a property), the 1991 quitclaim was not listed.

Gordon’s letter states: "It is Mr. Gordon's position that the execution of the 1994 turnaround agreement was the result of either a mutual mistake by both parties or a unilateral mistake made by his counsel, on which Mr. Gordon relied."

PATRICK WILSON as Nite Owl with the Owl Ship in Warner Bros. Pictures
PATRICK WILSON as Nite Owl with the Owl Ship in Warner Bros. Pictures
On Thursday, Levin issued a lengthy open letter through the website HitFlix, in which he gave his point of view on the matter. The full letter can be found at the link above, but some of the highlights include:

We've been told the graphic novel is unfilmable.

After 9/11 some felt the story's themes were too close to reality ever to be palatable to a mainstream audience.

There were those who considered the project but who wished it were somehow different: Could it be a buddy movie, or a team-up movie or could it focus on one main character; did it have to be so dark; did so many people have to die; could it be stripped of its flashback structure; could storylines be eliminated; could new storylines be invented; did it have to be so long; could the blue guy put clothes on... The list of dissatisfactions for what Watchmen is was as endless as the list of suggestions to make it something it never was.

Also endless are the list of studio rejections we accrued over the years. 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.

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?

Both parties are due to meet today to come to an agreement on a timeline for Feess to decide whether to issue an injunction that would block Warner Bros. From releasing the film on March 6th. The current date for the next hearing is January 20th, but as we reported Tuesday, Warner Bros. has asked for it to be moved up to Monday, January 12th, due to the matter’s urgency.

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