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Warner pushes for ruling on ‘Watchmen’ release

Warner Bros. is urging a federal judge to move up the date on which he will hear arguments about whether the studio may release the much-anticipated movie “Watchmen,” arguing that “time is of the essence,” with tens of millions of dollars in marketing expenses on the line.

“Watchmen,” based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is scheduled for release March 6. But the movie is at the center of a bitter legal battle between Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox.

U.S. District Judge Gary A. Feess said in a preliminary ruling last month that Fox controlled distribution rights to the film, but he deferred a final decision on whether Warner could release the film.

Warner Bros. disclosed in court filings that “Watchmen,” which the studio hopes will be a global blockbuster, cost $130 million to produce, with marketing and promotion expenditures pushing the studio’s total investment to “more than $150 million.”

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On Monday, Fox and Warner agreed to skip a jury trial and let Feess convene a hearing Jan. 20 on whether Warner should be blocked from releasing the movie.

But on Tuesday, with the release date less than eight weeks away, Warner asked the judge to begin the hearing eight days earlier, on Monday. The studio is already running trailers in theaters promoting “Watchmen.”

“Because the release date for ‘Watchmen’ is less than two months away and Warner Bros. must imminently commit to spending tens of millions of dollars on its marketing and promotional campaign for the picture, time is of the essence,” Warner Bros. said in its request.

Feess made no immediate decision about advancing the hearing date but is expected to rule Friday.

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Warner and Fox have battled for nearly a year over which studio controls the film’s distribution rights in a clash that began when Fox sued Warner for copyright infringement.

In legal papers filed this week, Warner argued that Fox should not be allowed to block its release of the film March 6 because doing so would impair the film and the studio.

Feess ruled Dec. 24 that Fox controlled the film’s distribution rights. Fox and Warner have tried to settle the dispute out of court without success.

Fox has successfully argued that “Watchmen” producer and former Fox studio chief Larry Gordon failed to obtain the rights to the property from Fox before taking the film to Warner, where it was directed by “300" filmmaker Zack Snyder.

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In a separate filing, Warner disputed Fox’s contention that it would be irreparably injured if Warner were allowed to distribute the movie as planned, asserting that the opposite was actually true.

“Witnesses will testify that Warner Bros. and Paramount [which is distributing ‘Watchmen’ overseas] are at least as competent as Fox to distribute the film, and any argument that the picture would do better at the box office and in other media were Fox distributing it is unwarranted speculation,” Warner says.

Fox has said in court papers that it believes Warner will argue that Fox, which has been stung by a series of commercial flops, is an “underperforming studio.”

“The evidence will show that ‘Watchmen’ is a superior and significant creative work, embodying years of intensive labor by hundreds of talented individuals and eagerly awaited by legions of fans around the world,” Warner said.

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john.horn@latimes.com


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