Many of the horror fans find themselves choosing sides in the legal battle of Sean S. Cunningham and Victor Miller, it’s a bit like a version of Freddy vs. Jason, except this all has real world implications that jeopardized the enjoyment for the fans and the financial costs of both parties named above seeking rewards. Now, many sites and blogs have presented this issue and enhance it further with Larry Zerner’s input in the past week or so, however I took a slightly different path and researched the court documents, which I provided links.
A little background for those uninformed, Miller who originally wrote the 1980 film, Friday the 13th, credited for creating the characters for the numerous sequels, and then that morphed into a reboot, video games and countless merchandising. Miller’s standing comes in the form of a termination of provision in the copyright law, which allows authors to do so, thereby ending their initial rights and reclaims ownership, as many authors discover that it’s not foolproof, anytime going to court involves risks. On the opposite side is Cunningham (Horror, Inc. [a Massachusetts Corp.] and the Manny Company [a Connecticut Limited Partnership]) as the plaintiffs claiming in their portion of the lawsuit that Miller wrote the screenplay for Friday the 13th as made-for-hire. It was in 1979 that Sean first conjured the idea for the Friday flick, because of Halloween’s success, the poster came first before the script, to see if any copyright or problems existed, but more importantly for funding of the movie. As the attention poured in the screenplay, work needed immediate attention. Their first collaboration of Cunningham and Miller was on the film Here Come the Tigers (1978) which incidentally editing completed by Steve Miner and music from Harry Manfredini. Miller wrote under the pseudonym Arch McCoy. They later officially created Manny’s Orphans (1978), before teaming up for Friday the 13th, and later worked again on the 1982 picture A Stranger Is Watching.
Now 38-years later, Miller is trying to obtain/reestablish rights, not to the past decades of the franchise but to future projects, while plaintiffs seek damages to both Horror, Inc and Manny Company significant damages (due to the halt in the franchise expansion), determination of rights, while additional damages from breached Employment Agreement and engaged in unfair trade practices. The full complaint filed on August 24, 2016, and located here, it’s only 17-pages in length but highly detailed and easy to understand, however it does not include the actual Exhibit 1 (the Writer’s Flat Deal Contract) which states the breakdown of two payments totaling $9,282. The first payment for a FIRST DRAFT SCREENPLAY of $5,569 and for the FINAL DRAFT SCREENPLAY $3,713. Here’s the docket of this case: Horror Inc. v. Miller (3:16-cv-01442), which does include the links to Exhibit 1 and Exhibit 2 (the copyright of the actual film).
This brings us to Larry Zerner, who portrayed the character ‘Shelly’ and who Jason acquired his legendary hockey mask from in Friday the 13th, Part 3, who now works as an entertainment attorney, and gave his opinion on twitter on June 13, in response to Friday13thGame refraining from adding future content because of this lawsuit. Here that information is:
- Thread: With the announcement by @Friday13thGame that they won’t be adding new content to the game because of the ongoing lawsuit between Sean Cunningham and Victor Miller, I’ve seen a lot of people dragging Victor online as if this is his fault. It’s not. 1/
- The Copyright Act includes a provision that states that an author can terminate any transfer he or she has made after 35 years. Congress added this provision to allow creators (writers, songwriters, etc.) who sold their rights cheap to have a second chance 2/
- In the case of Victor Miller, he was originally paid about $9,500 for the original Friday the 13th script, which turned into 12 movies, a very successful video game and lots of Jason Voorhees merchandise. This franchise Victor helped create made hundreds of millions of $$$ 3/
- But Victor was not entitled to any of that money. Victor did what the Copyright Act allows him to do, he sent a notice of termination to Sean giving Sean two years notice of the termination (which would occur in June 2018 4/
- The way it usually works in these cases is that the producer and the terminating writer will then have the two year period to work out a deal on how the money will be split on future projects (the termination does not affect movies already completed) 5/
- But Sean and Victor would need to make a deal because the termination only affects the Friday the 13th U.S. rights. Because of the quirks of copyright law, even after termination, Sean would still own the rights outside the U.S. 6/
- But instead of making a deal, Sean sued Victor, claiming that the agreement that Victor signed in 1979 is not terminable. And the fact is that this is a very new area of law, so there is not a lot of guidance for judges on who is right. 7/
- Both sides have very capable lawyers who are arguing the case. One of the problems is that although both sides argued motions for summary judgment last October, the judge in the case still hasn’t ruled. This has really slowed things down. 8/
- I’m sure that everyone involved believed that there would be a trial long before the termination occurred. I know it’s frustrating for the fans who want new movies and more content. But to blame it all on Victor is unfair. 9/
1:05 PM – 13 Jun 2018
- I really hope that the two can work it out and there can be more F13 content as soon as possible. End.
Then on June 15, 2018 at 5:33pm Zerner added to his previous thoughts:
- Some further thoughts on the Victor Miller/Sean Cunningham case: People are wondering why the two can’t work things out and reach a deal. Putting aside the issue of whether Victor is legally able to terminate the agreement, the remaining issues are very complicated 1/
5:33 PM – 15 Jun 2018
- If Victor were to win the case, he would own the rights to the original Friday the 13th script, but not any of the sequels. Now imagine that there is going to be a new (reboot) F13 movie (like the 2009 remake) which takes elements from F13 parts 1, 2 and 3. 2/
- For those reading who aren’t big F13 fans, the adult killer Jason didn’t appear until Part 2 and the hockey mask didn’t appear until Part 3 (when Jason took it from me). So, any reboot would involve multiple movie rights. 3/
- So, the analysis of what Victor should get from these reboots is complicated. Is he entitled to split everything 50/50 with Sean? Should it be 33%? 25%? There is literally no right answer and very few precedents to give guidance on the subject. 4/
- And what about things like the video game adding new levels? Or books about Jason? Or a television series set in Crystal Lake? Thinking about it for just a few minutes and one can see that setting some sort of firm rule on splitting the fees is very hard. 5/
- That’s not to say it can’t be done. I know that in the case of certain comic book artists who terminated their rights, they were able to make deals with Marvel or DC on payments for future works. But it’s not easy. Just something else to keep in mind. End.
- Copyright, Trademark & Entertainment Attorney. Co-Chair of the California Society of Entertainment Lawyers. Working to Protect Talent in Movies, TV and Music.
- Los Angeles – ZernerLaw.com – Joined October 2008
Therefore, I can only summarize from the materials presented as I’m not a lawyer and that the words “work for hire” doesn’t seem to present themselves in the documents. Nevertheless, everyone will need to stay the course and wait, think of it as avoiding Jason’s machete, until the courts rule, I then advise the fans to enjoy the franchise’s past and entertain themselves with other characters, stories, films in the vast horror genre.