In a news story that could have huge ramifications for Hollywood but will probably be ignored because it deals with the decidedly unsexy realm of contract law: According to Variety, author Tess Gerritsen has dropped her lawsuit alleging Warner Bros. used a legal loophole to rip off her novel Gravity for their 2013 film of the same name. A federal judge twice dismissed her lawsuit, and while Gerritsen still believes she’s in the right, she explains in a blog post that she doesn’t have the financial or emotional resources to keep up her David vs. Goliath battle.
Although both the book and the film follow a female medical doctor/astronaut who winds up stranded alone on a spaceship following a series of disasters, this isn’t a case of copyright infringement. Gerritsen is arguing that a large studio merger gave Warner Bros. the ability to make a film partially inspired by her book without giving her any of the benefits promised in a previous contract.
Just before her book was published in 1999, Gerritsen sold the rights for $1 million to Katja Motion Picture Corporation, a subsidiary of New Line. The terms of her sale stated that Gerritsen would receive “a production bonus of $500,000, 2.5 percent of the ‘defined net proceeds’ from the movie, and screen credit.” Her suit further claims that even then Alfonso Cuarón (who would go on to co-write and direct Gravity) was attached to the screen adaptation, although she was not aware of it at the time.
Then, in 2008 Warner Bros. took over New Line and a few years later went on to produce Gravity with Cuarón at the helm. Gerritsen is arguing that her contract with New Line was breached because she was given neither a “based upon” credit nor any percentage of the net proceeds when its new parent company produced the film. Since Gravity made over $700 million at the worldwide box office, that’s no small complaint. (Gerritsen was suing for $10 million in damages.)
The whole case is made even more confusing by the fact that for a while Gerritsen believed the similarities between the film and her book were just coincidental. It wasn’t until 2014 that she realized Warner Bros. owned New Line and began to get suspicious. In their legal statement from last year, Warner Bros. held that timeline against her and also asserted, “Since Katja never ‘produce[d]‘ or ‘release[d]’ the Movie, New Line cannot be in breach.” The studio also argued that the book and the film aren’t as similar as Gerritsen contends.
Ultimately, U.S. District Judge Margaret Morrow ruled that Gerritsen had not been able to prove that Warner Bros. intended to assume control over Katja and New Line’s obligations when it took over those companies. Or in legal terms: “[Gerritsen] failed adequately to allege breach of contract and breach of guaranty claims against defendants on a direct liability theory. The complaint similarly does not allege plausible claims against WB on successor-in-interest, alter ego, and agency liability theory.”
Since the case never got to court, Gerritsen wasn’t allowed to present her arguments in person, nor was she given to access corporate documents that would have clarified the relationship between Warner Bros. and New Line. And since New Line still owns the film rights, she can’t sue Warner Bros. for copyright infringement.
Although Morrow invited Gerritsen’s team to file an amendment complaint, the author explained on her blog, “The brutal financial and emotional costs of continuing the fight for years to come, against adversaries who have unlimited resources and are willing to use them against me, and the unlikelihood that we will ever be allowed in this courtroom to present our evidence, have made me decide to end my efforts.”
Furthermore, she adds:
This ruling leaves absolutely no remedy for a writer in my situation. Based on the court’s most recent decision, in which it went so far as to make the extraordinary statement that it finds no inequity in this situation, I have no faith in the system or that my case will ever be heard by a jury.
In this era of endless studio mergers and acquisitions, how can we writers protect ourselves from those who purchase our intellectual property rights and make promises but later voice no objection when their parent companies or affiliates take control and circumvent those promises? I’m afraid the answer from this court is clear: we cannot.
Those who want to learn more about the case from Gerritsen’s perspective can read her post from January explaining the larger ramifications of the lawsuit on all writers who make deals with Hollywood.