[UPDATE: A Los Angeles federal judge has set a Jan. 6 trial date for the Fox vs Warner Bros lawsuit, well ahead of the current release date.]

What an unbelievable mess this whole Watchmen movie fiasco has turned into. The average person has to ask themselves: How the heck does something like this happen? I mean, isn’t this why corporations have massive legal departments stocked chock full of everyone’s favorite people: lawyers?

Let’s take a look at the history of Watchmen in Hollywood to try to sort this all out.

The crux of the matter hinges on something in the movie industry known as “putting a film in turnaround.” Turnaround is basically a way for a studio that owns the rights to a property (in this case, Fox ownership of Watchmen) to “release” a project and allow another studio to make a film based on that property.

Of course the studio which owns the rights does not give this away for free, but depending on the specific arrangement either sells or “leases” the right to the other studio – in essence keeping a string attached which will allow them to recoup the cost of acquiring the property and possibly any development costs they’ve put into it, plus interest.

With me so far? Good.

You may not be aware of this, but the Watchmen project has been bouncing around Hollywood for over 20 years. Fox originally acquired the rights to the graphic novel back in 1987 and did intend to produce the film. Their plan was to have the original author, Alan Moore, write the screenplay. Unfortunately at the time they were not aware of Moore’s opinion regarding a film adaptation of his work – which was that he didn’t think it was suitable for a cinematic format.

When it seemed like they would not be able to get the project off the ground, Fox put Watchmen in turnaround to a number of studios over the years, none of which did anything with it. Ironically, the first studio to snatch up the rights when Fox made them available was – Warner Bros. They intended to put Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard) in charge as producer, Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys) as director and Sam Hamm (Tim Burton’s Batman) as screenwriter.

But Gilliam didn’t like the script, Silver was not able to raise enough money, and in the end the project languished for a number of years.

watchmenposter Possible Watchmen Movie Delay NOT Foxs Fault?

In 1991 enter producer Lawrence Gordon, a powerful Hollywood producer who was once a studio chief at 20th Century Fox and managed to secure the turnaround rights to Watchmen (remember, this means that Fox still owned the rights at a higher level).

In 2001 Universal took a shot at making the film with Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) as director with Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin producing a script written by David Hayter (X-Men, X-Men 2). What killed THAT deal was the fact the Universal Studios did not want to entrust such a huge production to Hayter, who wanted to direct the film with Gordon’s blessing.

From there Gordon and Levin tried to get the film made by Revolution Studios, then Paramount, which wanted Aronofsky to direct (who dropped out due to schedule conflicts) and then Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy). Greengrass approached the project (still based on Hayter’s script) with the right sensibility and a Summer 2006 date was targeted as the release date. Unfortunately in the end budgetary issues killed the project at Paramount, when the studio didn’t want to spend $100 million to make the film.

So back into turnaround it went.

(Click to continue “Possible Watchmen Movie Delay NOT Fox’s Fault?”)

In 2005 Gordon and Levitt brought Warner Bros into the picture and that’s where things finally came together – in June 2006 Zack Snyder (300) was offically announced as the director of the Watchmen movie, with a script by Alex Tse which would be based heavily on David Hayter’s screenplay. On a side note, although it’s well known that Alan Moore has always been against a movie adaptation of his graphic novel, he did say at one point that Hayter’s script “was as close as I could imagine to anyone getting Watchmen.”

watchmen comic comp1 Possible Watchmen Movie Delay NOT Foxs Fault?

Comparison of a scene from the Watchmen movie with the Comic

It remains to be seen how much of Hayter’s script survives in the final film.

Which brings us, finally, to today and this whole ugly lawsuit where everyone (including our site) has labeled Fox as the bad guy. Now there is no love lost between Fox and myself. They’ve mucked up a lot of potentially great superhero movies (Daredevil, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, X-Men 3, Fantastic Four), not to mention the grief they gave me about a Day the Earth Stood Still post here at Screen Rant.

The latest information that’s surfaced indicates that while Fox filed their lawsuit in February of this year, they claim that they had tried to contact Warner Bros via email, phone and postal mail since before the production even started, to no avail.

Now I’m not a legal-minded guy in any sense of the word, but here’s what it looks like may have happened:

It seems that Lawrence Gordon gave Warner Bros. the go-ahead to shoot the film. WB figures he owns the turnaround rights, so they’re golden (of course this doesn’t explain why they didn’t do some due diligence on the situation with a crack team of lawyers).

Gordon didn’t cross the t’s and dot the i’s on the Fox side of things, and assigned rights to WB incorrectly or incompletely in regards to his agreement with Fox.

Now Fox is taking Warner Bros to court, and it looks like the date may be as late as June 2009 (three months after the target release date for the film) and the trial is set to begin on January 6th, 2009 (two months before the release date).

Now what I find unusual (or maybe not) is that Fox isn’t going after Gordon in this lawsuit at all – when it seems that HE is the source of all these problems and the confusion. Of course Warner Bros. has much deeper pockets than Gordon, plus they have the film in the can – so maybe it makes sense after all. What’s interesting is that they’re not targeting Paramount, which also made an attempt at the film and had gotten the green light from Gordon before it went to WB.

The cast of Watchmen

However it looks like Warner Bros. will bring Lawrence Gordon into the middle of this legal battle, and rightly so as far as I can tell.

Will this affect the release date for Watchmen? Does Fox really want to keep the movie from being released or are they just playing this situation to the hilt in order to extract maximum coinage from Warner Bros. in an out of court settlement?

However this turns out, it seems to me that the real bad guy here may be Lawrence Gordon and NOT 20th Century Fox.

Sources: IESB, NY Times, Andrew Steven Harris