The long-gestating court battle over the film rights to "Watchmen" took a possibly cataclysmic turn late Wednesday, as Judge Gary Alan Feess declared that 20th Century Fox holds a valid copyright interest in the property that would cover distribution of the upcoming "Watchmen" movie.
The ruling doesn't bode well for Warner Bros., which is producing the Zack Snyder-directed pic scheduled to hit theaters on March 6. That release date could now be in jeopardy, although the judge appealed for both sides to find common ground and negotiate rather than continue through a trial, The New York Times reported.
The theatrical rights to "Watchmen" -- the bestselling graphic novel of all time -- have been mired in a series of complicated dealings dating back to the 1980s when Fox acquired the property for producer Larry Gordon. The studio subsequently abandoned plans to make the film, and Gordon began the search for a new partner.
After brushes with Universal and Paramount, "Watchmen" eventually landed at Warner Bros., which began production on the film in 2007 with a budget reportedly close to $150 million. In an additional layer of complication, however, Paramount obtained international distribution rights through an agreement with Warner. That arrangement would presumably also be affected by this latest ruling.
In its long-standing lawsuit, Fox has argued that Gordon never exercized his option to acquire their remaining interest in "Watchmen," thus leaving distribution rights with the studio. Wednesday's court decision would mean the judge now agrees with that position.
Back in October, Snyder was tight-lipped about the trial and its potential effect on his film’s release date, but some have claimed that the legal wrangling over “Watchmen” could be tied to a rights battle over the 1960s “Batman” television series. That dispute, also between Fox and Warner Bros., has prohibited Fox from distributing the show to platforms other than television, such as DVD or online.
"Watchmen" figures prominently on Warner's 2009 slate, and early footage from the film managed to dazzle crowds at July's San Diego Comic-Con. With legal proceedings still ongoing, it seems the best fans can hope for is a quick settlement allowing the March release to go unimpeded.
Stay tuned to Splash Page for continuing developments in the "Watchmen" legal battle.