WATCHMEN: Three Hours To Midnight

Alan Moore, thermodynamic miracle.

After years–decades!–of seeing that creepy Alan Moore picture on the flap of Watchmen, I can finally start to imagine that he’s probably laughing now. (OK, yes, I know: The Comedian is dead.) Watchmen lawsuits, studio politics…all the drama and absurdity about Hollywood that a writer of drama and absurdity would love to hate.

The latest controversy: Director Zack Snyder has brought his epic in at nearly three hours, but the studio wants to lose nearly 40 minutes, so that it can unspool more screenings at the theaters each day. Snyder says he may have to bin subplots like Hollis Mason and Rorschach’s prison psychiatrist–and, at that point, you might as well just subtract the film’s intrinsic field and be done with it. Relegating the director’s cut to a DVD extras menu isn’t exactly the type of homage you’d expect for the best-selling graphic novel of all time.

And while it’s true that the, ah, devotion that some fans demonstrate to Snyder’s creative vision seems to overlook that Moore’s creative vision didn’t want a movie at all, I think it’s the studio’s logic–really, its conventional wisdom about ALL film lengths–that has the actual plot holes here.

The Watchmen. Yeah, they look pretty pissed.

The Watchmen. They look pretty pissed.

As a general principle, when a film’s creator thinks its quality will suffer from the studio forcing a shorter running time–simply based on the raw running time itself, and not on the pacing or focus of the narrative–the weaker film that results almost invariably sells fewer tickets.

The notion that longer running times earn less money gets disproved over and over again: Lord Of The Rings came out as three different films, all around the three-hour mark, and all of them scored massive takes. Titanic took about three hours to sink, and it became the top-grossing film in history. Movies from Birth Of A Nation to The Sound Of Music to The Godfather trilogy…the list goes on and on.

It’s fair to say that these are the successes, not the failures; but the question is how many well-crafted films failed at the box office simply because their running times were too long, and not because their running times reflected bad filmmaking. Sure, for every Troy, there’s an Alexander; but the success of Troy demonstrates that it wasn’t Alexander’s running-time that conquered him.

The fact is, adding or losing a daily screening doesn’t affect the long-term profit of a film…unless it’s a really, really bad film. When that happens, a shock-and-awe approach to opening-weekend screenings (the Godzilla remake, for example, which at that time trampled onto more screens than any film in history) can recoup some of the film’s expenses before word-of-mouth drives people away for the rest of its run.

Hurm. Studio wants to cut 40 minutes from journal. Probably homosexuals or Communists

Hurm. Studio wants to cut 40 minutes from journal. Probably homosexuals or Communists.

That aside, simply adding a screening doesn’t really affect overall ticket sales in any substantive way, unless the theaters actually sell out every screening–meaning that people can’t otherwise get a ticket at all. So the only time this reasoning even aspires to good sense is when the film is a either blockbuster or a catastrophe.

And yet, even when positioned as a blockbuster, stripping narrative simply to add a daily screening– without regard for storytelling– becomes itself counterintuitive: a weaker film, after all, is less likely to be the kind that sells out every show. Leaving a stronger film at a longer length actually makes the studio more money, not less.

Or, put another way: Imagine if back in 1985, DC Comics had rung up a cottage in Northampton and said, “Cheers, Alan–bad news. Sales always drop for the back-half of a maxi-series, so we want you to cut Watchmen down to six issues.” Would we even be having this discussion?

It’s probably already a thermodynamic miracle that Snyder has taken a supposedly unfilmable 400-page graphic novel and brought it in at less than 180 minutes. The trailer alone sold 900,000 new copies of the graphic novel. And, with that many new converts to the faith, the last thing you want is to cut a good sermon short.

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The world will look up and say “sue us.” And I’ll look down and whisper, “okay.”

A recent court ruling sent tremors through the fan communities this week, when a federal judge held that Fox’s lawsuit against Time Warner could move forward over the rights to produce and distribute the Watchmen movie. I’ve already had a couple of friends in the industry ask me about it, since I taught copyright law at university for several years in addition to my current work in comics, and the centipede crawl of court proceedings can be notoriously maddening for people who just want to find out what the hell is going on.

It doesn’t help that this case involves both copyright–one of the most complicated areas of law, because it’s about property that doesn’t physically exist–and Hollywood contracts, which were invented by jacket-strapped lunatics clenching nubs of graphite between their teeth as they scrawled out Cthulhu-summoning rituals on the padded walls of their asylum cells.

Think the Watchmen graphic novel was complex? That Rorschach was crazy? That Ozymandias’s plan represents the labyrinthine scheme of a delusional megalomaniac?

Ha ha ha. You’ve never read a Hollywood contract. Watchmen is a Johnny DC pop-up book compared to a Hollywood contract.

I won’t bore anyone with the details of the ins-and-outs and option transfers and bankruptcies and quitclaims and all the things about law and litigation that make people want to chase the Comedian down the outside of a skyscraper. People just want to know what the hell is going on. So:

As we all know, Time Warner has finally produced a Watchmen movie, after years of well-publicized green lights and false starts and directors and scripts and producers and studios. In all of those twists and turns on the Hollywood rollercoaster, fans mostly preoccupied themselves with their rising expectations and crashing disappointments, not realizing that all the while, the rights to the film were getting sliced up, passed around, recombined, cast away, recycled and passed around again.

At some point late in the game, Time Warner believed it had finally stitched them all back together, and gave the go-ahead to produce the film. But Fox, involved in the slicing-up and passing-around at some point in time, believes it still owns a shred of the original rights–and perhaps the most important shred, like that one piece of newspaper clipping that finally lets you solve the crossword puzzle. Whether it actually owns that puzzle piece will now be up to the court to decide.

Fox, as is typical in such cases, waited until the film went well into and even past production before pressing its litigation, a strategy designed to encourage settlement in the same way that a shotgun encourages marriage; the last thing that Time Warner wants is for the film to be in litigation at the same time that it’s trying to market and release it.

This isn’t to describe Fox’s legal position as right or wrong, or its tactics as good or bad. It’s to say that what Fox really wants is not to stop the movie’s release, burn the negative and film its own opus; but to get its fingers on a slice of the pie. For a film whose trailer alone generated 900,000 new copies of the graphic novel, that’s hardly a surprise.

In that respect, fans should be encouraged that nothing about this litigation will realistically keep the movie out of theaters next year. At the end of the day, Fox wants money; it doesn’t want an unreleased and unreleasable film canister.

And, yes–while it’s true that Fox has also filed for an injunction to shut down the film’s release, that too should give the fans no alarm. It is, like Fox’s other maneuvers, just a negotiating tactic; a successful injunction simply represents the fastest way since God invented light of getting a settlement offer on the table.

I do know that Fox’s attorney’s say they’re not looking for cash; that copyright infringement is a serious matter and they’re litigating the entire thing to enforce their rights and their principles. But I think we have to call shenanigans on this one; if that were the case, then they’d have filed their lawsuit sometime well before this past February.

Rorschach: No patience for shenanigans.

OK, so: what actually happened at this court proceeding, and what does the ruling mean?

Time Warner had filed a pre-trial motion to dismiss the case, arguing that no reasonable interpretation of the law could give Fox a hope of winning, even if everything that Fox claimed was true about how the film’s rights were cut up and reassembled.

In other words, it’d be a waste of the court’s time to hold a trial, like a wrongful death case where there’s no allegation that someone even died; there’d be no argument imaginable that could make the case turn the corner.

These type of motions get routinely filed in the early stages of almost every type of litigation, and they’re just as routinely rejected. They’re usually filed as a Hail-Mary shot in the dark, since the procedure exists primarily to get rid of frivilous, bullshit lawsuits, or where one side just can’t see that it’s so plainly wrong. If there’s really any reasonable question or possibility of doubt, the judge will reject the motion and let the case go forward; because, as the saying goes, everybody deserves their day in court.

To decide that, the rules of these motions require the judge to pretend, just for this one ruling, that the target of the motion has already proven all of its claims to be 100% true. And, if after imagining that everything you claim is automatically true, the judge still thinks you couldn’t reasonably win, then–as another saying goes–you don’t have a case.

As you might imagine, that’s often an incredibly difficult standard to beat when a case is not so obviously a bullshit lawsuit, and that’s what happened here: the judge ruled that, if we give Fox the benefit of every doubt, there just might be a case in there.

What the judge didn’t rule, and usually never rules on at this stage in the game, is whether Fox actually deserves the benefit of those doubts. Whether its claims are actually true or not is something that wouldn’t get decided until a trial.

Granted, lawyers who successfully defend against these routine motions, especially in well-publicized cases, will almost always spin the ruling as if it means the veracity of their case has been written in stone by a fiery bush from Heaven, complete with Charton Heston and Yul Brynner and a special effects ride from Universal Studios. But in doing that, they’re just trying to amplify the public perception of their case; it doesn’t actually mean their client’s claims are more likely to be true.

So, if these motions are generally pointless, why do lawyers file them? Well, some would say that’s like asking why bears shit in the woods; but the truth is, they’re pretty easy to do, you never really know what a judge might rule, you don’t want to get sued for malpractice, and hey, might as well give it a shot, you could get lucky. People buy lottery tickets all the time.

But what does happen occasionally, however, is that the court will rule on something that actually affects the posture of the case down the line. For example: if the authenticity of a document is in dispute, the judge might rule that, pretending the document has been proven 100% authentic (as the rules of the motion require him to do), it would be overwhelming evidence that one side is right (or wrong). Then the lawyers know that the real target of the trial will be proving whether that document is authentic or not.

There’s something similar (different in specifics, but along the same theme) that happened here. The court ruled in a way that at least on the surface appears to give added staying power to the veracity of Fox’s claims. Again, the details are boring, but the decision helps provide a trail map for the Blair Witch journey that the rights to the film have taken–and for Fox, that’s a very good thing.

Said another way: the ruling itself (rejecting the motion) isn’t all that notable; but the content of the ruling looks like it gives Fox a helluva lot to work with.

It should be noted that this very same judge presided over a similar case relating to the Dukes of Hazzard film three years ago, so he’s well up on the laws and issues involved. In that case, he issued an injunction against Time Warner, and the case was almost immediately settled.

Obviously, Watchmen is a film with a much different history, and certainly a much different financial scope, and Fox a much different plaintiff. But my guess is that pretty soon–at least well before the release date to resolve any uncertainty–we’re going to hear an announcement about a settlement compromise one way or another, and everyone’s concerns about the curtain going up on schedule will blow away like Rorschach’s atoms in the snow.

Because Time Warner knows that when it comes to big-ticket litigation: In the end, nothing ever ends.

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