Deep Space $250,000

Claudia Puig is a Times staff writer

‘Contact” is a science-fiction saga about a man who tangles with alien life forms, but behind the scenes brews a legal tangle over who owns the rights to this extraterrestrial story--a living film director or a deceased scientist.

Less than a week after the death last Dec. 20 of astronomer Carl Sagan, director Francis Ford Coppola filed a breach-of-contract suit against the Pulitzer Prize winner over rights to his 1985 novel “Contact.” Coppola is seeking, among other things, $250,000 in compensatory damages.

Sagan’s best-selling book is currently being made into a movie by director Robert Zemeckis for Warner Bros., which is also named in the suit. Coppola is trying to stop the film’s release, which is tentatively scheduled for this summer.

The filmmaker’s suit states that Sagan’s book grew out of an idea created by Coppola more than 20 years ago for a television program about Earth’s first contact with extraterrestrials.


Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, who lives in Ithaca, N.Y., calls Coppola’s claims “unconscionable and completely without merit” and said she will fight the suit in keeping with her husband’s wishes before his death at age 62 of a rare pre-leukemia syndrome.

“It would defame the memory of my husband and what he stood for to cooperate with this kind of [treatment],” Druyan said. “You cannot imagine the heartache I’ve felt, within days of my husband’s death, to receive something like this. I was sickened and outraged. . . . This is not what a great artist would do.”

Coppola and his attorney, Robert Chapman, declined to comment for this story.

In the lawsuit filed Dec. 26 in Los Angeles Superior Court, Coppola said he entered into a joint venture in 1975 with Children’s Television Workshop Productions to create and develop a television show to be called “First Contact.”


Coppola said he then contracted with Sagan--who was dedicated to popularizing science and was a pioneer in the study of the possibility of extraterrestrial life--in March 1975 to serve as a collaborator on the project, according to the suit.

Druyan said that Sagan and the Oscar-winning director were acquaintances and did have some conversations on the subject but that the project never materialized. (Children’s Television Workshop Productions is not involved in the lawsuit.)

“There was an intent to do something, but those things very often lead nowhere,” said Druyan, herself a co-producer of “Contact” and the co-author with Sagan of the 1985 book “Comet” and the 1994 “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” as well as co-writer of the “Cosmos” public television series.

“There may have been a letter in 1976, but they never asked Carl for any input. Mr. Coppola is referring to a discussion that never went anywhere.”


Coppola claims in the lawsuit that he drew up a contract and that under its terms, Sagan had the right to write and publish a book relating to the subject matter of the television show. But the contract also stipulated that royalties and other payments attributable to the book were to be divided equally among Coppola, Children’s Television Workshop and Sagan.

According to Coppola’s suit, Sagan spoke to him to seek approval to write a book based upon the ideas and concepts of the television show. Sagan got the necessary approval, the suit said, and published “Contact,” which was about the discovery he envisioned of radio signals from outer space.

Druyan denied that Sagan ever got any subject matter for “Contact” from Coppola.

“The only similarities between Coppola’s idea and Carl’s was the extraterrestrial contact. There were no characters or real concepts in common,” Druyan said. “As if Carl Sagan ever needed anybody to give him an idea. Carl had been writing about this subject since he was 15 years old.”


Coppola alleges in the lawsuit that in 1995, Sagan entered into a contract with Warner Bros. to develop and produce a movie based on the book and did not consult with either him or Children’s Television Workshop regarding this venture.

“Contact” stars Jodie Foster as a scientist who detects radio signals from deep space. Matthew McConaughey, James Woods and Angela Bassett also star. It is Zemeckis’ first film since his multiple-Oscar winner “Forrest Gump.”

Coppola also alleges that Sagan--who wrote some two dozen books and hundreds of scientific and popular articles and created “Cosmos,” the popular public television show--received payments from Warner Bros. for the use of the book but did not equally divide the money received with Coppola or Children’s Television Workshop.

Druyan said she wondered why she and Sagan did not hear from Coppola when the book was published (and was on the New York Times bestseller list for six months).


“Where was Francis in 1985 when the book came out? In 1985, he raised no issue about this,” Druyan said. “There was nothing discussed in 1975 that has found itself in the movie. This claim is just so scurrilous.”

She said that Sagan had heard of Coppola’s claims only a little more than a year ago.

According to the suit, Coppola said he wrote to Sagan in November 1995, notifying him of his concerns and reminding him of the agreements he had entered into with the director and Children’s Television Workshop. The lawsuit claims that Sagan ignored the request and went forward with the production of the movie.

But Druyan said that Sagan did indeed respond to the letter.


“Mr. Coppola raised this about a year and a half ago and Dr. Sagan responded very respectfully that his claim was completely without merit,” Druyan said.

She said Sagan, in turn, posed 20 to 25 questions about the claims, but neither Coppola nor his lawyer answered.

In addition to seeking compensatory damages for the alleged breach of contract, Coppola is also seeking a permanent injunction “preventing any further development, production or distribution of a motion picture, or other work based upon the book, including . . . any such motion picture produced and/or distributed by Warner Bros.,” according to the lawsuit.

Warner Bros. officials declined to comment on the lawsuit except to say that production is proceeding and that it is company policy not to comment on pending litigation.


Coppola’s attorney, Robert Chapman, said the injunction seeks to prevent the film’s release.

(Coppola, meanwhile, will soon be in court on another matter involving Warner Bros. An April 23 court date has been set for his lawsuit against the studio over last summer’s live-action “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” Coppola sued for interference with contract and slander of title, claiming it thwarted his lifelong dream of bringing the Carlo Collodi novel to the screen after he left the studio in 1993.)

Druyan said she believes that Coppola intentionally waited for the death of Sagan, who had been ill for several years, before filing the lawsuit. She said Coppola may have assumed he would be more successful extracting money from Sagan’s estate.

“He realized that as long as Carl was alive and could face him, nothing would come of this,” she said. “Perhaps he’s fallen on hard times. He probably thought to himself, ‘Carl has had three bone marrow transplants, we’ll just hang in there till he’s dead and then we’ll harass his wife and children.’ ”