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The ‘Friday the 13th’ legal battle is just the tip of this Hollywood horror story

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A reboot never happened. While King James was conquering the courts, Jason Voorhees was stuck in one of them, the subject of a legal battle that left the horror franchise in limbo.

Before becoming a lawyer, Zerner was a victim of Jason Voorhees.

A murderous affair

For half a decade, “Friday the 13th” has been stuck in a copyright dispute over who owned the original script, which in part affected who can use this iconic hockey mask in the future.

The on-screen death of Cue Zerner.

In 1982’s “Friday the 13th Part III”, he plays a prankster named Shelly who, along with his friends, is attacked by Jason in cabins on Crystal Lake. When Zerner’s character is killed off, Jason appropriates a hockey mask that Shelly had used to scare one of her friends. This prop would go on to define the killer’s cinematic legacy and play a key role in the case Zerner is now following.

“I love that my two passions intersect, copyright and ‘Friday the 13th,'” Zerner said. “People love Jason, they want to see more.”

But the masked killer hasn’t been seen since the release of director Marcus Nispel’s “Friday the 13th” in 2009.

On either side of the dispute are producer and director of the 1980 film’s “Friday the 13th” Sean S. Cunningham, who also represents a group of investors, and Victor Miller, the film’s first screenwriter who turned is beaten for control of his screenplay after the copyright expired.

A court sided with Miller, but in interviews with CNN, Cunningham and Miller’s attorney reveal why Jason may not have made it out of court yet.

“Both sides are really dug in foxholes,” Cunningham said. “They’re not going to throw grenades, but I don’t think anyone will call for peace talks.”

Who owns Jason now?

Deconstructing who currently owns Jason Voorhees offers a revealing window into the copyright law affecting many beloved movie characters and why a court ruling that ended the dispute didn’t exactly clarify the future of Jason.

After an appeals court upheld a lower court ruling in September, screenwriter Miller was awarded the copyright for the script and associated characters in the original “Friday the 13th” film.

When Congress extended copyright terms in 1976, it threw a bone at the creators of big-name projects by giving them a way to fight intellectual property control from producers and studios.

A scene from
“It’s designed to give some of the heirs a bite to eat during this extended time,” Aaron Moss, an entertainment attorney who writes the Copyright Lately blog, told CNN.

But only creators hired as independent contractors were protected, not full-time employees of a company. The court found that Miller completed the “Friday the 13th” script for Cunningham as a contractor.

“We can now license a remake, a prequel or even a sequel film…as long as those films don’t use any additional copyrightable material,” said Marc Toberoff, a Malibu copyright attorney who represents Miller.

This is where it gets complicated.

Miller can control the original movie’s storyline and characters, but not the “Friday the 13th” title, nor the content of the sequels that include the adult Jason and the iconic hockey mask that has defined him since Part III. (Jason’s mother was the killer in Miller’s original film).

Toberoff, who also secured the rights to horror icon Freddy Kreuger and ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ for Wes Craven’s estate, looks set to walk a fine line as he pushes for a future project. .

“Miller now owns the copyright to his screenplay, including sequel rights, but Jason can’t be portrayed as older than in the first film? Doesn’t that make sense,” Toberoff said. “Jason was very present in Miller’s film. In fact, Mrs. Voorhees channeled Jason. And, of course, the first one was ready for the sequels.”

It references a final scene where a young Jason jumps out of the lake to attack the heroine.

The cast and crew fill out a scene from the 2009 film

“Then comes the question of the mask, adds Toberoff. “Are you making a new mask, like they often did before? Do you even need the mask?”

Cunningham says he’s ready to fight if Miller tries to do a “Friday the 13th” with an adult version of Jason’s character at the center.

“And if it was a grown Jason without a hockey mask, I can’t imagine they would be very successful,” he added.

A battle over Jason’s age and looks could be moot because of a key limitation in US copyright law: it only applies to rights in the US, not overseas markets, which are coveted by Hollywood distributors. Cunningham says those rights still belong to him and the original investors.

“Miller has to convince a studio to make this stuff that can only be distributed in the United States,” Zerner said. “We can have this theoretical argument that you can make a movie that doesn’t infringe on anybody else’s rights, but is anyone seriously going to do it without world rights? I doubt it.”

But Toberoff says this case is different because of the unusual nature of Miller’s 1979 deal with Cunningham, which he says will hold up in court to give Miller a partial stake in world rights, in addition to rights. full Americans he earned last year.

Larry Zerner

“We can license TV series, explore Crystal Lake and how Jason became who he is – think ‘Twin Peaks’ or ‘Bates Motel,'” Toberoff said.

The “Friday the 13th” dispute may be messy, but it’s not unique. Copyright battles are on the horizon for many well-known characters.

“In the next couple of years, a number of iconic Hollywood movies could end up in court,” Moss said. “Movies like ‘Robocop’, ‘Beetlejuice’ and ‘Ace Ventura’.”

Fox has already settled a case over the rights to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1987 film “Predator,” Moss said, adding that Disney is currently in litigation over five Marvel characters, including Spider-Man, Iron Man and Black Widow. But Moss says fans shouldn’t worry that their favorite Avengers might be kept off screen.

“Because the current copyright holder (Disney, in the case of The Avengers) is usually the one best placed to produce and distribute a film worldwide,” Moss said. “It usually results in negotiation and settlement” between the two parties, he said.

“50-50” odds of another movie

Lakers star James isn’t the only big hitter salivating at the thought of a new ‘Friday the 13th’. Horror icon Stephen King has dangled his own wish to write a new story from the perspective of Jason Voorhees himself.

“The best novel idea I’ve ever written (and probably never will) is I JASON,” King tweeted in June 2020. “Just thinking about the legal thicket one would have to go through to get clearances gives me a headache.”
A scene from the 2009 film

That kind of attention is a far cry from the motley origins from which Cunningham and Miller came to capitalize on the success of John Carpenter’s 1978 classic “Halloween.”

“We were both broke, trying to figure out a way to make money to keep the lights on for six months,” Cunningham said.

Hundreds of millions of dollars later, the question of who benefited from all that money is an obvious motivation in this saga.

“Sean has won millions of dollars,” Zerner said. And Miller, “I have bupkis.”

Everyone involved agrees that there are still millions more people sitting on the table if Jason wields a machete again – in film, TV or a video game – especially after a massively successful reboot of the “Halloween” franchise.

“I think it will come back,” Cunningham said. “But I can’t tell you it’s coming back this year or next. Will Jason be back in theaters? Right now it’s 50-50.”

If an agreement is not reached, Zerner offers a last resort.

“In 53 years it will be in the public domain, so anyone can make the movie,” he laughed.

So theoretically anyone could, you could say, try it.