Screen Talk: Where there's a hit, there's a writ

There is an almighty scrap going on in Hollywood right now.

It involves a legal dispute, two studios, a potential blockbuster and an old-school producer mogul from Yazoo City, Mississippi. And, like all good yarns, it is being played out in the law courts.

The furore is about the release of the long-anticipated adaptation of Watchmen, one of the most celebrated comic-book series, created by Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons and colourist John Higgins.

The comics play out a complex, dark take on the superhero tale involving masked vigilantes. A murder mystery, the film is set in an alternate reality where the US won in Vietnam, Richard Nixon has been President for more than 10 years and the Cold War with Russia and the threat of nuclear extermination are ever-present.

The big-screen version has stymied film-makers and studios for nearly two decades. But veteran producer Lawrence "Larry" Gordon, from Yazoo City, and his producer partner Lloyd Levin have remained a constant in trying to get the movie made. Terry Gilliam was attached to a version in the early 1990s, with Gordon and Levin developing the project at 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros.

When that version stalled and Gilliam left the project, Gordon and Levin took it to Paramount and Universal. In 2005, they were within days of shooting at the UK's Pinewood Studios, with Paul Greengrass in the director's chair and a cast that reportedly included Joaquin Phoenix and Hilary Swank. But the plug was pulled due to spiralling costs, putting the $150m-plus project on turnaround again and back at Fox.

Gordon, whose credits with Levin include the Hellboy franchise, Boogie Nights, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and the two sequels each to Die Hard and Predator struck a deal with Fox to release the rights. He subsequently took it to Warner Bros, which gave a new version the green light.

With Zack Snyder of 300 behind the lens and a large cast including Patrick Wilson (best known for Neil LaBute's Lakeview Terrace), Carla Gugino, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Billy Crudup, the budget was cut and the film was at last shot in Canada last year. Gordon breathed a sigh of relief and Warner Bros was confident it had a 2009 smash.

But, Fox says, just before production began it contacted Warner Bros to prevent it filming and later slapped a copyright infringement suit on the project to stop WB from releasing the film. The claim? WB was violating Fox's interests by filming the tale in the first place. Why? Fox says it allowed the film to go into turnaround with Gordon back in 1994 on the proviso that if it wound up being made with a different studio, Fox would have distribution rights and a share of profits.

A US federal court judge agreed in December with Fox and Warner Bros is now disputing that. After all, WB has an expensive, high-end marketing campaign (think $50m) about to go into overdrive.

The trial is set to start on 20 January, but with talks between the two studios recently described as "fruitful", it seems likely that financial interests will triumph. But LA is agog at the fundamental dispute over copyright issues, and in future the studios will be more wary than ever about who owns what.

What is certain is that if Watchmen opens in the US – and there is a chance it won't – many in Hollywood will be as interested in the story of the adventures of the man from Yazoo City as they will be with the events onscreen.

And the winner might be...

Just for the record, the Golden Globes are not the greatest indicator of what will or won't win at the Academy Awards next month in the major categories of best film and director, and acting. If anything, the Screen Actors Guild nods are a better guide, as acting talent makes up the majority of the Oscar voters who decide the biggest film accolades of all. After all, Academy membership is granted to each winner every year, and by invitation to those put forward and seconded by the 6,000 existing members. No conspiracies here about Slumdog Millionaire and its prospects as "the one to beat" for best film. It's just a membership vote.

Stuart Kemp is the UK bureau chief of 'The Hollywood Reporter'

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