Who Gets To Watch the Watchmen?

This post is a guest post by Mark “Rizzn” Hopkins, associate editor at Mashable.

I’ve been in hog heaven lately with the glut of quality comic book movies that have been coming out recently. The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Hellboy 2 and The Hulk have all been superb movies that are unique and have expanded the genre (as well as paved the way for future quality adaptations to hit the silver screen). Another movie made possible by these successes and others like them in summers past is the film adaptation of the DC Comics short run series called The Watchmen.

The Watchmen has always been an influential work in both the science fiction world as well as the comic book world. Alan Moore, the writer, has seen subsequent graphic novels move to the big screen (like V for Vendetta and From Hell). After the comic run finished, it was later re-published as a graphic novel, something that is widely attributed as having popularized the format.

Unfortunately, there’s now a chance that The Watchmen may never make it to theatres. I caught the news yesterday on comic industry blog Uncivil Society that there’s apparently an intellectual property dispute between Fox and Warner Brothers as to who exactly owns the exclusive movie rights to the film, and Fox is threatening to block the films release entirely in an effort to protect their investment.

The evidence is pretty clear that Fox secured the rights back in 1990 (Uncivil Society has all the document scans), but turned down the production. The producer eventually ended up at Warner, who greenlighted the project, but clearly didn’t do the legal due diligence.

Does that mean the film will end up not seeing a public release? It’s doubtful it’ll come to that. Mike Massnick over at TechDirt does some reading of the tea leaves, and indicates he belief that the disagreement will “get settled long before the movie’s scheduled release in March of next year — but it will probably mean that Fox gets some of the profits for doing absolutely nothing.”

Should We Even Have Exclusive Rights in the First Place?
Mike then injects a bit of his typical libertarian approach to intellectual property matters and wonders why there even exists the idea of “exclusive movie rights”:

To be honest, the whole concept of selling off exclusive rights to a story idea for a movie never made that much sense. If multiple studios want to make multiple movies out of the same concept, why shouldn’t that be allowed, letting the best movie win in the marketplace? If the original content creators feel strongly about a vision, then they can sign up to work with one particular studio to make sure the movie is more true to life — but it shouldn’t require “exclusive” rights.

He then goes on to use as evidence for his point the fact that when actual news or riveting real-life drama happens, it’s a race to the finish as to who can come up with the best movie adaptation first. Without realizing it, though, he demonstrates why it’s a very bad idea to take competitive standards and apply them to artistic works.

Image via Wikipedia

While the movie adaptation of V for Vendetta was a commercial success and very well received by the fans of the graphic novel, Alan Moore was so notoriously displeased with the film that it was profiled in the New York Times. Mr. Moore is the embodiment of the desire for artistic integrity, and in a situation where all movie rights for films were up for grabs, gross misinterpretations of the underlying messages would run rampant.

From a business perspective, though, such a system would be incredibly damaging to many longstanding franchises. For years after Joel Schumacher and Tim Burton drove the Batman movie franchise off a cliff, the series became untouchable in Hollywood and sales of the comic book went down the drain.

Certainly, as is evidenced by both of these cases, the exclusive rights system doesn’t always prevent us from getting bad movies. Having a hoard of movie producers rushing towards a deadline, each one trying beat the other by a week’s release date certainly can’t help the quality of the films coming out, and I doubt seriously many major comic vendors are willing to gamble that way with their brand and their stable of titles.

Guest author Mark “Rizzn” Hopkins is an associate editor at Mashable. He also writes about New Media, artificial intelligence and public relations on his personal blog as well as a number of video and audio podcasts on both sites.

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