Warner Bros. will have to scramble to settle with 20th Century Fox if it still wants to release “Watchmen” on March 6.
In a Christmas Eve decision, a Los Angeles federal judge ruled that Fox owns the distribution rights to “Watchmen.” “Fox owns a copyright interest consisting of, at the very least, the right to distribute the ‘Watchmen’ motion picture,” Judge Gary Allen Feess ruled.
Judge Feess issued the surprise five-page ruling a week after setting a Jan. 20 trial date for Fox’s suit and indicated he would issue a more detailed ruling soon. He also advised the studios to either reach a settlement or prepare an appeal.
“The parties may wish to turn their efforts from preparing for trial to negotiating a resolution of this dispute or positioning the case for review,” he said in the ruling.
Warner spokesman Scott Rowe declined to comment. The studio has not backed off a release date of March 6 for “Watchmen,” directed by Zack Snyder and starring Patrick Wilson and Jackie Earle Haley.
Fox filed the suit in February, contending it retains distribution rights to the graphic novel penned by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons.
The suit asserts that producer Lawrence Gordon’s option to acquire Fox’s remaining interest in “Watchmen” was never exercised, thereby leaving Fox with its rights under a 1994 turnaround agreement. Warner Bros. has denied Fox’s assertions and contends Fox doesn’t hold the copyright.
Fox originally acquired the rights to “Watchmen” in the late 1980s and spent more than $1 million developing the project, which later went to Universal and then Paramount before landing at Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures.
Par’s handling the international release of “Watchmen” and plans a day-and-date opening in many major markets.