Billy Crudup plays Dr. Manhattan, a superhero, in “Watchmen,” which is currently scheduled for a March 2009 release.
SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Visible through the glass door of the film producer Lawrence Gordon’s office here, a poster for his coming movie “Watchmen,” framed and ready for hanging, was propped against a wall this week.
Still to be determined: whether the black-and-yellow artwork, its distinctive happy face spattered with blood, will have some of its most important credits revised before joining Mr. Gordon’s crowded poster gallery.
A rapidly escalating legal fight between Warner Brothers, which has already shot “Watchmen,” and 20th Century Fox, which claims to own rights to the graphic novel on which it is based, is headed for trial in federal court in Los Angeles next January. That is just two months before Warner is scheduled to release the film in the United States, while Paramount Pictures distributes it abroad. (Legendary Pictures helped finance the film.)
The collision is extraordinary. Major studios have rarely if ever been known to sue each other over a $100 million-plus picture that has already wrapped.
The fight is still more puzzling in that it centers on Mr. Gordon, a 72-year-old show business veteran behind movies like the “Die Hard” and “Hellboy” franchises and “Field of Dreams.” This is a man, after all, who has taught more than a few producers how to work the studios without getting crushed between them.
“To a whole generation of us, Larry was our mentor,” said John Davis, whose producing credits include “Norbit,” “I, Robot” and, 21 years ago, “Predator,” on which he collaborated with Mr. Gordon and the producer Joel Silver.
During his brief tenure as president of Fox in the mid-1980s, Mr. Gordon built a staff that included now-prolific producers like Laurence Mark (“Dreamgirls”) and Scott Rudin (“No Country for Old Men”). Amy Pascal, currently co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, was another executive mentored by Mr. Gordon at Fox. And James L. Brooks — whose Fox film “Broadcast News” picked up seven Oscar nominations — began working as writer, director and producer at the studio under Gordon.
Mr. Gordon declined to be interviewed for this story, as did lawyers from the Beverly Hills firm Bloom Hergott Diemer Rosenthal LaViolette & Feldman, which has done much of his legal work over the years. Executives at both Warner and Fox also declined to comment.
But people on both sides of the dispute — who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing complications of the court fight — said Mr. Gordon was in a particularly delicate position.
Even though he has not so far been named as a defendant in the suit, Warner insists that Mr. Gordon is ultimately responsible for the validity of his claimed rights to the project. If Warner does not prevail in court, or chooses to settle, the producer could be pressed to cover any losses. .
Crusty and charming by turns, Mr. Gordon, a Mississippi native, is no stranger to Hollywood roughhouse. In a 1983 go-round, for example, he secured a temporary restraining order against Paramount when its executives tried to throw him off the lot. Only a year after his spectacular success with “48 Hrs.,” studio executives had changed the locks and shut off the phones at his producer’s office in a tiff, according to news reports at the time, over his dealings with competitors.
As early as 1980, Mr. Gordon was already known for his skill at using the studios’ competitive instincts to get his movies made.
“Larry seems to have the record for setting up ‘turnaround’ projects,” read the studio notes for “Xanadu,” a Universal Pictures film that was released that year after first being developed at Warner. The notes referred to the complex process by which a studio may let another adopt one of its projects — sometimes to its embarrassment, if the resulting movie is a hit.
A dispute about turnaround now lies at the heart of the fight over “Watchmen.”
Beginning in 1986, Fox acquired rights to the graphic novel, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, about superheroes who have fallen into disrepute. The plan at one point was for the film to involve Mr. Silver, a young producer who worked at the time in partnership with Mr. Gordon, whose tour as Fox president had been cut short by heart surgery.
But Mr. Gordon had soon formed Largo International, an independent company with Japanese backing — and he had a falling-out with Mr. Silver. In 1991, Fox, accommodating Mr. Gordon, granted Largo its rights in “Watchmen.” The studio was paid $320,000, according to recent court filings, and retained the right to distribute any movie Largo might make from the book.
Three years later, however, Mr. Gordon left Largo. And Fox again accommodated him, with a new agreement that granted Fox a right to become involved with the project any time a star, director, budget or other material element changed.
Warner now questions how Fox could have created a turnaround in rights it had already given to Largo. Fox argues that it still had rights under its original agreement, and consented to let go of the project both in 1991 and in 1994 only under conditions that were never met.
In any case, according to a person briefed on the dispute, the 1994 turnaround agreement did not find its way into Universal’s pile of documents when that studio checked the movie’s rights before putting “Watchmen” into development.
When the project hit a dead end at Universal, Mr. Gordon, well versed in the art of turnaround, moved it to Paramount. In keeping with industry practice, Universal’s paperwork regarding the rights followed — still without the 1994 agreement.
In 2006, “Watchmen” moved again, this time to Warner. Again, the documents arrived without the 1994 turnaround agreement.
“Watchmen” picked up heat early in 2007 when Mr. Gordon, having been through a series of prospective directors, Terry Gilliam and Paul Greengrass among them, signed a new director: Zack Snyder, who had just delivered Warner a surprise blockbuster with “300.”
Meanwhile Fox, after remaining passive for years, grew restive — perhaps because no one before had come close to starting principal photography. Shortly after Mr. Snyder announced his plans to make a “Watchmen” movie amid great hoopla at San Diego’s fantasy convention Comic-Con in 2007, Fox lawyers sent Warner a letter claiming rights under both the 1991 agreement and the later turnaround.
Fox has said in its court filings that Mr. Gordon never complied with a requirement that he resubmit the project to the studio when elements changed. Warner is expected to contend that Mr. Gordon offered “Watchmen” to every studio in town, including Fox. Still, Mr. Snyder came aboard and the entire cast was recruited after that contact, so elements had again changed.
Warner executives, according to people briefed on the matter, have privately speculated that Fox, faced with weakening performance at the box office, was angling for a small cut of the movie — perhaps 5 percent of its gross receipts. But Fox executives, also according to people briefed on the matter, were put off by what they saw as Warner’s failure to take their claims seriously, and delivered a shock by filing suit in February. As of this week the studios were jostling each other over what Fox now claims is Warner’s slow and inadequate compliance with orders to supply documents and witness lists under a schedule that may well put the movie — and at least four studios — in front of jurors rather than fans.
Mr. Gordon, meanwhile, appears to have made good on a philosophy he described almost 30 years ago.
“Most pictures are made because somebody else wants to make them,” he was quoted as saying in a 1979 issue of Screen International.
“As a producer, the only club you have is to have something that somebody else wants.”