Rights Issues: The True Curse On FRIDAY THE 13TH
According to reports released this morning, LeBron James wants to produce the next Friday the 13th movie:
"Bloody-Disgusting is exclusively hearing that James and his Springhill Entertainment is currently in talks with Vertigo Entertainment to produce a reboot of Friday the 13th."
As that story (which was later confirmed by THR) notes, this news comes as no surprise (and is even an example of horror history repeating itself). After David Gordon Green's Halloween made $77.5 million at the box office this weekend, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that someone would be poking around the grounds of Camp Crystal Lake, attempting to see if they, too, could earn a quick buck on Jason Voorhees' iconic hockey mask. After all, that series was born as a direct result of John Carpenter's OG slasher in the first place.
As the legend goes: Friday the 13th was concieved with a phone call. “Halloween is making a lot of money at the box office, let’s rip it off," is what writer/director/producer Sean S. Cunningham said to co-screenwriter/producer Victor Miller, before taking an ad out in Variety promising potential viewers "the scariest movie ever made". Cunningham hailed from the Wild West days of porn, directing and cutting softcore "couples films" with Wes Craven (for whom he'd also produce Last House On the Left) as a means of making sleazy bank. Naturally, this fleshy filmmaking arena helped sharpen the producer's huckster acumen, as he only had a title but no real story to go off of. Together, Cunningham and Miller supposedly pounded out the isolated American riff on Mario Bava's Bay of Blood, which found a bereaved Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) offing horny, doped-up counselors as a means of avenging her "special boy" Jason's death.
What wasn't hammered out? Who owned what when it came to the ensuing Friday the 13th sequels, seven of which were produced at Paramount Pictures (who bought the $500,000 indie that went on to gross nearly $40 million at the domestic Summer '80 box office). After being introduced the following year as the main killer in Friday the 13th Part 2 (and discovering his goalie fetish in Part 3D), Jason would then Go To Hell, space (Jason X), and battle Nightmare On Elm Street dream slasher Freddy Kreuger (Freddy vs. Jason) for New Line Cinema, before Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes teamed with NLC for the '09 reboot, which earned almost $100 million worldwide on a meager budget of $19 mil.
Yet the main rights dispute is still connected to the original Friday. On one side of this slasher legal fracas is Miller, who wrote the story for Friday the 13th, and is credited with inventing the characters in the sequels and reboot. According to a 2016 complaint filed in Connecticut federal court, Miller is seeking to exploit a provision in copyright law that allows authors to terminate a grant of rights and reclaim ownership after 35 years of publishing. Opposing him is Cunningham, his company Horror, Inc. and the Manny Company, who are claiming in their suit that Miller wrote Friday the 13th as a work-for-hire job, which under copyright law would mean that the producers authored the work and thus the 35-year termination rule doesn't apply. Furthermore, the complaint states that Cunningham guided Miller every step of the way during the screenwriting process.
For those interested (and capable of wading through legal jargon), here's Cunningham's complaint in full, which specifically states:
"As a result of Miller’s improper actions, a cloud has been placed on Horror's rights in and to the popular and lucrative Friday the 13th movie franchise and has caused, and will continue to cause, both Horror and the Manny Company significant damages. In addition to seeking a declaration of the parties' respective rights, the Manny Company seeks a determination that Miller has materially breached the Employment Agreement, has slandered Horror's title in Friday the 13th, and has engaged in unfair trade practices."
The main dispute boils down to whether or not Miller delivered the screenplay as an independent entity (essentially as a "spec" screenplay), or if he was operating under a "work-for-hire" contract, which would determine who owns the screenplay outright. The defining piece of evidence? A memo to Cunningham from his assistant, dated May 22, 1979, mentions sending Dawn of the Dead gore maestro Tom Savini (who would provide F13 its nasty kill SFX) the first draft of the script, along with a May 23rd letter addressed to Savini which also refers to an enclosed screenplay. The problem with those dates is that Miller and Cunningham’s agreement is dated June 4, 1979, thus rendering the document a "spec" work not falling under the "work-for-hire" contract. Miller's defense (which you can read in full here) rather depressingly states:
"In 1979, Miller’s best friend was an independent film director/producer named Sean Cunningham. In early 1979 Cunningham suggested that they do a movie together emulating the low-budget slasher hit Halloween (1978). After seeing Halloween in early 1979, Miller swiftly wrote a detailed 15-page film treatment entitled The Long Night at Camp Blood (the 'Treatment'). Shortly thereafter Miller wrote an original screenplay also entitled The Long Night At Camp Blood. (the 'First Draft'). Miller wrote the film Treatment and First Draft 'on spec,' without a contract or any guarantee of compensation, hoping that Cunningham could raise the financing for their horror film, based on this material. Cunningham then came up with a more commercial title for the film – Friday the 13th."
The case made headlines earlier this year because the developers of the popular Friday the 13th video game (pictured above) ceased producing a DLC due to the suit. Gun Media issued a statement regarding the downloadable content, saying:
“When we originally learned that the game fell within the crosshairs of this legal dispute, we tried to balance the creation of new content requested by our fans against the maintenance and bug fixing that our community expects and deserves. We attempted to do both within the limits of the legal case. We’ve now been forced to accept that the lawsuit makes future content for the game, including alternate play modes, new playable Jasons and Counselors, and new maps, unfeasible now or in the future.”
However, a 62-page summary judgement opinion penned by U.S. District Court Judge Stefan Underhill on September 28th ruled in favor of Miller:
"I hold that Miller did not prepare the screenplay as a work for hire and that Miller’s Second Termination Notice validly terminated Horror’s rights to the copyright in the screenplay to Friday the 13th...although Cunningham possessed ultimate approval authority over Miller’s output, that fact is consistent with a hiring party’s role in both independent contractor and employment relationships. The simple fact that Cunningham provided direction or supervision is also not dispositive. Although the record points to frequent interaction between Cunningham and Miller, there is little in the record to suggest that such interactions frequently consisted of Cunningham exercising close control over Miller’s work, and there is nothing in the record that suggests Cunningham controlled the details of Miller’s creative expression or otherwise directed the performance of Miller’s daily activities. Despite a lack of detailed control over Miller’s expression or confining control over Miller’s work habits, however, Cunningham’s discussions with Miller and approval authority did broadly affect the aesthetic content of the screenplay."
What does any of this mean? Good question. Essentially, while Cunningham had influence over Miller's writing Friday the 13th, Miller is still the author of the document. Furthermore, Underhill goes on to illustrate a single scene that belongs to Cunningham and not Miller (involving a motorcycle cop interrogating the counselors, which Cunningham invented during a different stage of production) but also states that, while Jason appears as a boy in the Friday the 13th script, there may still be some question as to who actually owns the grown, hockey-mask-sporting iteration of the characters from the sequels:
"I also decline to analyze the extent to which Miller can claim copyright in the monstrous 'Jason' figure present in sequels to the original film. Horror may very well be able to argue that the Jason character present in later films is distinct from the Jason character briefly present in the first film, and Horror or other participants may be able to stake a claim to have added sufficient independently copyrightable material to Jason in the sequels to hold independent copyright in the adult Jason character. That question is not properly before the court in this case, however."
Damn. So, on top of the opinion being appealed by Cunningham and the other plaintiffs, it's still up in the air as to which party adult Jason even belongs to. One would assume that a new version of the film or sequel (financed by LeBron James or anyone else) would want to utilize its most recognizable killer. Even more complicated is the fact that, while Miller will holds the rights to Friday the 13th domestically, Cunningham & Co. (along with Warner Bros. and NLC) control the rights in certain foreign markets where the 35-year termination recapture doesn't apply. So, no matter who produces a new picture, they're probably going to hear from both parties when divvying up receipts from all global territories.
Speaking of revenue, there's also the fact that both New Line Cinema and Platinum Dunes still potentially hold financial stakes in whatever Friday the 13th installment comes next. To wit, the picture would have to turn a rather sizable profit at the box office, in order for all parties to be paid out, thus calling into question whether it's financially viable to invest in a new Friday the 13th reboot/sequel at all. Because if you're a producer looking at this pie, you have to take into account that you're going to be giving the majority of it away before you even start pocketing some profit yourself, depending on the contracts put into place.
All of this is to say that, while the news of LeBron James being interested in financing a new Friday the 13th is certainly enticing, don't get your hopes up quite yet. There are still many, many moving parts that need to be properly put into place for this machine to churn out another dead teenager classic. Stay tuned, Fright Fans, for it may be a minute before the true curse on Camp Blood is lifted.