Fox sues Sony over superhero movie

July 04, 2005|By Robert W. Welkos | Robert W. Welkos,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOLLYWOOD -- Call it: The Clash of theHollywood Titans as 20th Century Fox heads into court against Sony Pictures Entertainment.

At stake? Whose superhero movie will rule the month of May next year, which is traditionally one of the biggest months at the box office.

It all began when Fox announced plans to release X3, the third installment in its blockbuster comic-book-superheroes action series X-Men, on May 26, 2006. Sony decided to put Zoom, its own comic-book-superheroes movie, in theaters May 12.

Now, Fox and Marvel Enterprises, the creator of the X-Men comic books, have filed a federal lawsuit claiming Zoom infringes on the copyrights of X-Men, a franchise that has grossed $700 million worldwide. Fox's legal assault against a rival movie studio for copyright infringement is rare, experts say.

The lawsuit, filed June 20 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, aims to keep Sony and Zoom producer Revolution Studios from marketing and distributing their movie in a way that piggybacks the success of the X-Men comics and films.

The lawsuit contends that Sony and Revolution intended to release Zoom in August 2006 but moved up the date after Fox announced its X3 plans.

"Zoom's release in May 2006, immediately before the release of X3, is an unfair attempt by Sony and Revolution to manipulate the market and trade off the time, energy, resources and effort Marvel and Fox have invested in X-Men," the lawsuit states.

Already, attorneys on both side are launching verbal salvos trying to undercut the legal claims of their opposition. Bert Fields, who is defending Sony and Revolution, called the allegations "absolutely off the rails."

"These two pictures are totally different," Fields said. "(X-Men) is a dark, frightening picture about mutant wars and (Zoom) is a light-hearted comedy with Tim Allen and Chevy Chase and has a totally different story.

"I have never seen a studio sue another over placing a movie near their competitor's picture," Fields said. "Every studio places their pictures in order to get the best of their competition. That is what America is all about. No court ... would say there's something wrong."

But Robert B. Cohen, executive vice president of legal affairs at Fox, refutes the dark vs. comedy argument.

"You can't steal someone's literary property, change the tone and then pretend you never stole the key underlying elements of the property," Cohen said. "Does anyone seriously think that Fox could go ahead and make Spider-Man, The Comedy without Sony objecting?"

Marty Kaplan, associate dean of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, said studios "always play games of chicken with one another over release dates."

"It's a little bit like staking a claim on gold mining land," he said. "They announce these release dates in a way that tropical birds ruffle their plumage in order to keep their competitors from saying `No, this is mine.'"

The lawsuit states that Fox has invested "hundreds of millions of dollars" in developing, producing and marketing X-Men and its sequels.

The studio has hired Brett Ratner of Rush Hour fame to direct the picture, which stars an ensemble of top actors playing various comic-book roles. They include Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, Ian McKellen, Rebecca Romijn and Patrick Stewart. In this sequel, Kelsey Grammer has also come on board.

In Zoom, Allen plays a former superhero named Jack who is called back to work to transform an unlikely group of ragtag kids into superheroes at a private academy. The film co-stars Chase and Courtney Cox.

According to the lawsuit, although Zoom is based on the book Amazing Adventures from Zoom's Academy by Jason Lethcoe and three related Zoom comic books, the actual script is not only quite a departure from the books, but also very much like the X-Men movies and comics.

The lawsuit cites numerous similarities between the Zoom script and the X-Men franchise. In the book, the lawsuit notes, the superheroes of Zoom attend a school on an imaginary island in the sky. But in the Zoom script, like in X-Men, the superheroes are trained in underground facilities -- the Zoom kids are taught at "Area 52," a secret military installation inside a New Mexico mountain, while X-Men students get their training beneath an institute in New York.

Fields scoffed at the comparison. "They make a big point that both facilities are underground," he said. "How many pictures [of this genre] have underground facilities? It's not a protectable idea." Besides, he noted, in the Zoom script, the facility is located in the side of a mountain in New Mexico, not in New York.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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