Warner Bros. To Superman: Don't Call Us, We'll Call You

Illustration for article titled Warner Bros. To Superman: Dont Call Us, Well Call You

Warner Bros. doesn't have a Superman film in development right now, and President Alan Horn told a judge that he has "issues" with the Man of Steel. Warners won its latest legal battle, but has Superman's movie career already lost?

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The new Superman ruling was just the latest development in a running battle over the legal rights to the last son of Krypton. The heirs to Superman's creators, Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster, have been battling over the rights, and legal control, of Superman for years now. This time around, they were arguing that Warners paid sister company DC Comics too little for the movie and TV rights to Superman, in a "sweetheart deal." In order to win this case, Warners had to prove that Superman's screen incarnation wasn't worth that much — which the company did, by citing the poor performance of Superman IV: The Quest For Peace and the lukewarm box office and critical reception of Superman Returns.

Horn told the judge:

What hurt us is that the reviews and so on for the Superman movie did not get the kind of critical acclaim that Batman [Begins] got, and we have other issues with Superman that concern us.

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He also said, flat out, that the company doesn't have a Superman film in development — at all. So forget all the speculation about whether Bryan Singer or Brandon Routh might come back. Judge Stephen G. Larson wrote:

No script has been written, filming has not commenced, and the earliest a ‘Superman' film could be theatrically released would be in 2012.

According to Variety, there may be a bit of a deadline for Warners to figure out its issues with Clark Kent, and get a movie rolling. At least, attorney Marc Toberoff, representing the Siegel heirs, claims that his clients and the Shuster estate will own all copyrights to Superman:

This trial was only an interim step in the multifaceted accounting case which remains, in that it only concerned the secondary issue of whether DC Comics, or DC Comics and Warner Bros., would have to account to the Siegels. To put this in further perspective, the entire accounting action pales in comparison to the fact that in 2013, the Siegels, along with the estate of Joe Shuster, will own the entire original copyright to Superman, and neither DC Comics nor Warner Bros. will be able to exploit any new Superman works without a license from the Siegels and Shusters.

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He also claims that the court ordered that if Warner Bros. doesn't start production on a new Superman movie by 2011, the Siegels and Shusters will be able to sue for damages.

So there may be a bit of urgency for Warners to change its mind about Supes. But only one thing is really certain: scads more litigation are in the Man Of Tomorrow's future. [Variety and New York Times]

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DISCUSSION

I read the decision by the judge, and while he did rule that the actual money paid to DC by WB for the licensing was reasonable, there were certain terms of the licensing agreement between DC and WB that could be viewed as detrimental to the IP of Superman, meaning Siegels could claim damages for those portions.

Specifically, the judge noted there was no reversion clause that is normally included in licensing deals for this type of IP. Almost all licensing agreements include a clause that says if the licensee fails to develop the property, the owner gets the rights back. The DC/WB deal for Superman did not have this clause. Meaning WB could sit on the Superman rights without developing them. Additionally, the compensation DC was to receive was entirely contingent on revenues from actually development. So, DC does not receive any money unless a movie is actually made.

The judge specifically noted that it is important for these types of properties, such as comic book properties, to not sit on the shelf collecting dust. The longer they languish without any development, the less they are worth because they fall out of popularity. So the judge suggested that if WB fails to put a Superman movie into development by 2011, Siegel may be able to seek damages.