Fox Searchlight, Guillermo del Toro and others associated with the Oscar contender “The Shape of Water” are facing a copyright infringement lawsuit brought by the estate of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Zindel.
The Academy Awards-adjacent timing of the lawsuit — filed last week by David Zindel, acting as a trustee of his and his sister Lizabeth’s trusts, which equally share the rights to their father’s literary works — is a point of contention between the sides.
Fox Searchlight Pictures, in a statement to The Times, called the claims baseless and said the suit “seems timed to coincide with the Academy Award voting cycle in order to pressure our studio to quickly settle.”
A lawyer for the plaintiffs said the Wednesday filing was based on when David Zindel became aware of alleged similarities between “The Shape of Water” and his father’s 1969 play “Let Me Hear You Whisper,” and the studio’s reaction after Zindel made his concerns known.
"The timing is of their own making," Marc Toberoff said in response to Fox's statement. "They knew about it and did nothing." He said in an interview Thursday that Zindel contacted the studio "about five weeks ago" about the alleged similarities in response to a “groundswell” of public comments to that effect.
Del Toro directed the Oscar-nominated movie, has a “story by” credit and shares the screenwriting credit with Vanessa Taylor. The film is up for 13 Academy Awards this Sunday and has already earned Golden Globes for director and original score, the PGA Award for best picture and four Critics’ Choice Awards.
The studio said it would “vigorously defend ourselves and, by extension, this groundbreaking and original film.” It intends to file for a dismissal. Del Toro’s rep did not provide a separate statement from the four-time Oscar nominee, though the director told Deadline last week that he had never seen or read “Whisper,” nor had any of his collaborators mentioned the play.
Toberoff said there was no accusation that Del Toro by himself had done anything; rather, the attorney said, with most copyright situations, “someone in the chain” introduces the idea on the way to the final product.
The suit points to defendant Daniel Kraus, a producer on “The Shape of Water,” who reportedly pitched the idea to Del Toro.
“Kraus is both on record as an admirer of Zindel’s work, and came up with the ‘idea’ for the Picture the very year the A&E production of Zindel’s Play first aired on national television,” the lawsuit said. “These and other telling details from the writing and production of the Picture strongly evidence that Defendants knowingly infringed Zindel’s Play.”
Both play and movie tell stories of a lonely female janitor working in a laboratory where an intelligent sea creature is being held and ultimately threatened. The lawsuit alleges more than 60 similarities between the works, including oddball elements such as a decapitated cat and a record player in a science lab.
Paul Zindel’s play has been widely read and performed for decades and has been adapted into two made-for-TV productions that ran on public television in 1969 and on A&E in 1990 and have been rebroadcast since, the suit said.